Christology, Lesson 4:  A Doggie Bag

doggie bag for ChristologyAdapted from a Christology class taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA.  The class was taught by Dr. Richard B. Gaffin III, in the spring of 1997.  The class is freely adapted from my notes for M.E.A.T.  I have not been careful to indicate quotations versus summaries of Gaffin’s content.

As we try to delimit the topic of our study, i.e., as we try to circumscribe Christology as a topic of inquiry, Dr. Gaffin draws a geometrical analogy.  The center of Christology is, as we’ve seen, the death and resurrection of Christ.  The whole Bible is about the death and resurrection of Christ in history, and the church that is formed through the proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  So we began by looking for the center, what is most central to Christology.  And we found that center to be the death and resurrection of Jesus. The circumference, in Gaffin’s analogy, refers to the limits of our inquiry, the boundaries of our study of Christology.

The geometrical analogy is helpful for understanding the question before us:  As we do Christology, what will control the radius, so-to-speak, of our inquiry?  That is, what controls the questions that we ask, or at least the answers that we can expect to find?

It is as we focus on the center, peering into God’s revelation in Christ, particularly as it happens in the flow of human history, as it climaxes the flow of history itself;– It is as we appreciate the redemptive-historical fulfillment of the crucifixion, resurrection, and consequent church, that we will be led to the appropriate questions.  For Gaffin’s analogy, the centripetal forces (pressing toward the center) will give rise to powerful centrifugal forces (pressing toward the circumference).  This redemptive-historical focus has not always been carefully maintained by reformed theologians since the reformation.

One of the hallmarks of reformed theology is its unswerving commitment to the eternal counsel or plan of God.  It has particularly been careful to maintain the biblical teaching about the will of God as it touches the comprehensiveness of that plan (Eph 1:11; Rom 8:28) and the irresistible and incomprehensible sovereignty of God in realizing His plan.

This is all well and good, but with these commitments and observations, has gone a tendency to orient theology to the decrees, to make them the ultimate reference point for our theology.  The theological enterprise can even come to be seen as a matter of deducing all other doctrines from the decree of God. Such a deductivistic approach has an obvious logical appeal, beginning as it does at the ultimate source of all things.  Its weakness, however, is the undeniable tendency this approach has to over-interrogate Scripture, to press it for answers it is not concerned to answer, at least not with the clarity that the questions hope for.

Herman Hoeksema orients his theology to the decrees like this, and is brought (in the interest more of logical consistency than of biblical fidelity) to deny common grace altogether.  He denies a genuine benevolence of God toward the creation.  He denies the clear teaching of Matthew 5:45 and of Acts 17:24-25.

A less extreme manifestation of this failure to keep the cross and empty tomb at the center of our focus — this tendency to orient our theology to the decrees instead – is found in the infralapsarian/supralapsarian debate.  Does God’s decree to save some (the decree of election) logically precede his decree to permit the fall?  That is the supralapsarian view.  Or, does God decree to permit the fall, and then elect to save some?  That’s the infralapsarian view.  That is, does the election for salvation consider creatures as creatures, or does it consider them as fallen creatures?  Again, this is a question of the logical sequence, nothing more.

But how legitimate is the question?  Gaffin thinks P.K. Jewett shows that it is a biblically legitimate question.  I remain unpersuaded.  Given the eternal nature of the decree itself, and given the simplicity of God (the orthodox teaching that God is identical with his attributes, that he is not composed of parts), how useful is it to speak in terms of plural decrees?  When the Westminster Confession of Faith treats the eternal counsel of God, it titles the chapter (chapter 3) “God’s Eternal Decree” – singular, not plural.  Admittedly, the Shorter Catechism uses the plural, but it would be much better to think of one decree in its richness, one decree with manifold facets.

This overly deductivistic approach – orienting our theology around the eternal decree, rather than around the temporal fulfillment of the scriptures in the cross and empty tomb – must be guarded against.  As an example of the care that must be taken, consider Revelation 13:8, a common proof-text for the doctrines of grace.  The KJV renders this verse, “And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Based on the close parallels in Revelation 17:8 and 21:27, we believe the “from the foundation of the world” better refers to “written” than to “slain.”  It is in fact the case that Christ was not slain before the foundation of the world.

If He were, if the efficacy of the sacrifice were found in the decree, rather than in the temporal fulfillment of the decree, then the sufferings of Christ in time are meaningless.  Any such construction pushes us into fundamental theological and religious error, no matter how Calvinistic our motives.  Any construction that makes the death of Christ unnecessary is to be avoided at all costs.  If there were any other way that our salvation could have been secured, then God was bound to go that way.  If there were any way in which he could have spared his son what he endured in the fullness of time, then God was bound to find that way.  Anything else leaves his agonizing prayer in the garden unanswered and makes mockery of his sufferings.  That is, we maintain that the atonement was necessary, given the fact that God determined to save some.  That is, we are maintaining the consequent (as a consequence of the decree of election) absolute necessity of the atonement.  But our more primary point is this:  We must not allow the decreed character of the cross eclipse its historical necessity, centrality and efficacy.

We are not saying that we are disinterested in the decree.  We are just saying that, as a matter of priority and orientation – where the accent ought to fall in our reflections on Christ – that focus should not be on the decree, with historical realization only serving to corroborate the decree, but rather the other way around.  And as we wrestle with the full meaning of this revelation of God in Christ, we will be constantly driven back into the hidden depths of God’s eternal counsel.  So the issue is, “Will the Gospel remain the center of theology and of Christology?”  Our watchword needs to be the covenantal principle enunciated in Deut. 29:29.  It is inevitably the case that those revealed things, by their very nature, will point us back to the secret things.  But as we hold fast on the revealed things (in their full redemptive-historical dimensions), we will be kept and guarded from over-extending and over-reaching so as to violate the principle of Dt. 29:29.

We have been describing how to keep Christology from being too broad a topic.  But now we must ask how to keep it from being too narrow?  How do we keep from gravitating to a “Jesus-only” theology, a Jesus piety that only knows forgiveness of sins and nothing else?  How do we avoid taking such a narrow focus on the death and resurrection that it shrinks the circumference of our inquiry too much?  So how do we concentrate on the center without limiting this circumference of our vision?  How can we ensure that we are able to grasp how high and wide and long and deep is the love of God in Christ?  (Eph. 3:8).  The full dimensions that the apostle is reaching for?

The answer, in one word, is the covenant.  As we appreciate how Scripture sets Christ’s person and work in the context of the covenant, that will enable us to realize and maintain a biblical balance between center and circumference.  And that’s … in a word … going to be our approach.

So here endeth the sort of prolegomena of Christology – talking ABOUT Christology, Talking about what we are GOING to do …rather than doing it. Now we need to tackle the person, the work of accomplishment of salvation, the work of application of redemption, and the return of Christ.  But we are going to use the method and focus that we’ve been at significant pains to set forth.