Friday, December 30, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Majesty of Mystery, by K. Scott Oliphint

K. Scott Oliphint.  The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

K. Scott Oliphint teaches apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister.

This book concerns tensions about God, and how they attest to God’s mystery.  To give you an idea about what tensions the book discusses, allow me to quote from page 4:

“Have you ever wondered how God can be Three-in-One?  Have you been uneasy trying to explain that the One in whom you’ve put your trust has two completely different natures?  Have you thought about your affirmation that God is eternal in light of His activity in time and in history?  Are you tempted to think that if God is in complete control we cannot be responsible for what we do?  Does your confession of God’s sovereignty conflict with your understanding of prayer?  Does it make more sense to you to deny that God is sovereign?”

This paragraph actually provides a good idea of what this book is like.  The book is written for Christians who are literate enough about their faith to ask these questions.  Oliphint obviously writes from a standpoint of empathy towards those who ask such questions, he is not afraid to ask them himself, and he takes those questions seriously.  And you can probably infer that Oliphint is in the Reformed Calvinist camp, since he mentions the tension between God’s “complete control” and human responsibility, as well as the tension between God’s sovereignty and prayer.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Chapter 5, “The Majesty and Mystery of God’s Relationship,” is the strongest in this book in some areas, while being the weakest in other areas.  Oliphint appears to accept the Westminster Confession’s affirmation that God is “most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible” (Westminster Confession, chapter 2).  The challenge is reconciling this conception of God with features of God that are described in Scripture.  How can God be eternal, or outside of time, and yet interact with human beings within time?  How can God lack passions yet be loving, angry, or jealous, as the Scriptures depict?

Chapter 5’s strength is that Oliphint wrestles with attempts by Augustine and Reformed thinkers to resolve such questions and, quite frankly, finds their solutions to be wanting.  Oliphint then proposes an alternative solution.  These strengths are in contrast to the rest of the book.  Often in this book, Oliphint quotes Reformed thinkers for support rather than disagreeing with them, and Oliphint usually leaves tensions standing and calls them a mystery rather than seeking any resolution to them.

The weakness of this chapter, in my opinion, is that Oliphint does not rigorously or adequately support the Westminster Confession’s affirmation with Scripture.  He argues that God’s “I am that I am” statement in Exodus 3:14 supports God’s aseity, but that verse by itself does not support the Greek philosophical conception of God that the Westminster Confession, on some level, embraces (knowingly or not).  While Oliphint quotes Scriptures, he does not successfully connect them with the Confession’s affirmation.  By contrast, Oliphint offers more Scriptural support for his positions in other chapters of the book, such as his Calvinistic view that God decreed who will be saved.

B.  This book is not exactly a work of apologetics, if you want to define apologetics as providing arguments for the Christian faith being true.  A few times, however, Oliphint does seem to advance such arguments (or that is my impression).  On page 122, for example, he states: “Surely no other religion or man-made system has ever come close to thinking in this way.  No cult has a God who is complete in Himself, yet who decides, while remaining who He is, to become ‘one of us.’  We would not have thought of such a thing—-unless God Himself has spoken to us these magnificent truths (1 Cor 2:9-10).”

I am ambivalent about this argument.  On the one hand, people can come up with all sorts of ideas, and other religions probably have their share of mystery, too.  On the other hand, the argument does deserve consideration.  A possible way to improve the argument is to ask: How did Christian conceptions of God compare with other religious and philosophical systems of the ancient world?  If the dissimilarities are great, then attributing Christian conceptions to divine revelation is understandable—-not iron-clad, but understandable.

C.  I found a statement on page 87 to be noteworthy: “After Adam and Eve sinned, the punishment of death was set in place.  But God graciously intervened to change the corrupt nature of those born after Adam so that fellowship with God might be restored.”

This is different from what I might expect in a Protestant book.  Many Protestant books would focus on Jesus paying the penalty for people’s sins to restore human fellowship with God.  Oliphint, however, highlights God changing people’s nature as part of God’s work to restore the broken divine-human fellowship.  Oliphint probably believes that Christ paid the penalty for people’s sins, and Protestants do stress God’s personal and spiritual transformation of people.  Still, what Oliphint said on page 87 stood out to me, since it stressed nature rather than judicial standing in discussing the divine-human relationship.

D.  On page 200, Oliphint states that we can know God “truly” (I Corinthians 2:10-11), but never “exhaustively”.  Oliphint does not provide much support for this assertion, but it is a helpful way to conceptualize knowledge of God.

E.  The book discusses the economic and immanent Trinity and the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures.  Those who have already read about these issues will probably find nothing new in these sections.  Those looking for a lucid introduction to these topics, however, will find these sections of the book helpful.

I am giving this book four stars because it is thoughtful, has a friendly tone, provides interesting quotes of John Owen and B.B. Warfield, and engages historic Christian thinkers, such as mystics.  The book’s discussion of I Corinthians 13 was also helpful, as it placed the chapter within the context of previous discussions in I Corinthians.  I would have preferred for the book to have attempted to resolve more tensions, however, as opposed to chalking them up to mystery and expecting people to be in awe at the apparent contradictions.  I am more in awe of attempts at solutions that generate more questions.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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