Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Recovering the Reformed Confession: A Book Review by David DeJong

At Reformed Academic, we are interested in discussing topics in any area of academic study from a Reformed Christian perspective. Thus we here present an essay review on a recent significant volume in theology.

R. Scott Clark, professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, published Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). We thank David DeJong, a graduate of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary and currently a theology doctoral student at Notre Dame, for writing the review, which can be found in our “Collected Papers” (see the sidebar); a direct link is here.

We welcome your responses to Clark’s book as well as to DeJong’s critical review.


Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks, Dave, for this extensive review. R. Scott Clark raises a good many issues that deserve discussion. I myself found the paragraph on the archetype/ectype distinction especially interesting. If I remember correctly, Bavinck still used that distinction in his Reformed Dogmatics. Apparently it was connected with the neo-Platonic Logos doctrine. When adapted by early Christian thinkers, this doctrine taught that humans, because they were made in God’s image, could to some extent participate in the divine Logos and so “think God’s thoughts after Him.” Johannes Kepler is said to have used the latter phrase to describe his study of the cosmos. Indeed, it apparently was not uncommon to look at science in general as such. Occasionally we still meet the phrase today in other contexts, although generally speaking modern Reformed thinkers are more aware of the limitations of human understanding.

It was Herman Dooyeweerd who critiqued the doctrine. He did so with reference to such Bible passages as Isaiah 55, where we learn that God’s thoughts are incomparably higher than ours. Meanwhile the doctrine had, as Bavinck’s biographer R.H. Bremmer pointed out, encouraged a good deal of speculation, a “moving from thesis to thesis,” in Reformed theological thought and writing. It is interesting to read in your review that the Reformers already established safeguards against too eager an acceptance of the Christianized Logos doctrine.

Tom Zietsma said...

Dave, this is a good thought-provoking review of Clark's book. It is also refreshing to have RA publish articles outside the direct scope of the OE/YE debate. RA has a pool of people capable of writing knowledgeably on a variety of issues and we welcome that. Clark's book and this review touch at the heart of many liturgical and other issues facing the Canadian Reformed Church as well. Good stuff!

Tom Zietsma
Stoney Creek, ON

ddj said...

Thanks Tom and Freda for the kind words. If readers get far enough, there are issues touched on in the review which do indeed challenge current practice in the CanRC. For example, my experience in the CanRC is that there is a high degree of legalism with respect to Sabbath/Sunday issues. Paul's admonition to freedom in such disputable matters (Rom 14:5) is scarcely applied; instead, it is assumed that it would be a sin to, for example, go out for dinner on Sunday. The uniformity of opinion on this issue is somewhat surprising to me given the biblical knowledge of the average CanRCer, which I would assume is fairly high relative to most denominations.


David DeJong
South Bend IN

Arnold Sikkema said...

Thanks, Freda, for pointing out Kepler and Dooyeweerd. I have found myself objecting to Kepler’s idea that we think God’s thoughts after him, and for this reason I have sought to carefully distinguish “God’s laws for creation” from our human-formulated “laws of nature.” I have done this, for example, in my article entitled “Laws of Nature and God’s Word for Creation” (listed in our “Collected Papers”), especially pp. 33ff. There I wrote,

“If we hold strictly to Kepler’s notion that we ‘think God’s thoughts after him’ in terms of our formulation of the laws of physics, we would have to expect that the way God governs the creation is in fact through the institution and enforcement of laws which have the characteristics like those described above under the heading ‘Laws of Physics’ [e.g. mathematical, universal] but fully accurate. Instead, I’m suggesting that our formulation of laws is essentially human and creaturely, and God in his goodness and ordaining power has provided for the possibility of our formulations. The foremost feature of God’s word for the physical aspect of created reality is its covenantal character: God makes covenant and faithfully keeps covenant with his creation.”

It has been rightly pointed out by many historians of science that the Christian doctrine of humans being created in the image of God was a significant factor in the rise of modern science (e.g. Pearcey & Thaxton, Soul of Science and Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science). In effect, the argument goes as follows: God is rational, so he created the universe with a rational plan; we are created in God’s image, and so we are rational. Thus we can uncover God’s rational plan for the universe. However, I wonder if rationality is even in view in the Scriptural idea of imago Dei. I would be interested to hear from those more theologically astute whether other elements, such as humans being divinely appointed representatives and stewards, as well as our unique capacity for inter-personal relationship, are perhaps more central to this doctrine, especially from a Reformed perspective.

Furthermore, I think Kepler’s notion tends toward a so-called “Christian Platonism,” in which the universe is seen as a manifestation of eternally existing absolute mathematical truth. This, I think, blurs the distinction between Creator and creation and exhibits mathematical reductionism. I will have more to say on this topic later on this summer.

Arnold Sikkema said...

With thanks to the author for communicating this, I note that the recent doctoral dissertation of Jason Van Vliet, professor at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, makes four conclusions on this topic:

“1. Calvin’s description of the imago Dei matures over time, but the core of his definition remains fairly consistent. For him the image is an attributive similarity which the Triune God imprinted upon the human soul from the beginning. That is to say, as God himself is just, holy, and wise, so he also created Adam and Eve in such a way that they were just, holy, and wise. The relationship which surrounds and sustains this attributive similarity is a familial one. Essentially, at creation the image is: like Father, like children. In fact, Calvin explicitly states that the imago Dei is God’s testimony to us that we are his children. Over time, he comes to include the human body and the dominion over creation in his definition of the image, although they are still regarded as small, or even very small, parts of the similitude. This attributive similarity is a special endowment which God gave to Adam and Eve, but which he did not give to any other creatures.

“2. Adam and Eve, as well as their descendants, were obliged to honour and thank the Giver of this unique endowment. However, to be precise, this response of gratitude is not per se part of the definition of the image. Rather, according to Calvin, it is the telos unto which the image is directed. In short, gratitude is the appropriate response to God’s special gift to humanity, but it is not part of the parcel itself.

“3. The imago Dei does not involve theosis, neither in its definition nor in its telos. There were church fathers who dabbled with deification (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzen), as well as late medieval figures who did the same (e.g., Nicholas of Cusa). Prominent Renaissance humanists such as Pico, Lefèvre, and Erasmus, also spoke, to one degree or another, with undercurrents and overtones of deification in their language. However, Calvin encountered more explicit strains of theosis in men such as Andreas Osiander and especially Michael Servetus. This encounter led Calvin to counter any hint of fusing or confusing humanity and divinity. Under no circumstances will Calvin allow imago Dei to metamorphose into esse Deum.

“4. For the most part, Calvin defines the image of God in the same way that Bullinger and Melanchthon describe it. They all identify the image as an attributive similarity which God established between human beings and himself. This similitude engenders a bond of fellowship. Melanchthon emphasizes the epistemological aspect of this bond; namely, that human beings have the unique ability to comprehend the congruency between God and themselves. Calvin and Bullinger highlight the doxological debt of gratitude which human beings owe to their Maker. However, neither Wittenberg’s professor nor Zurich’s Antistes depict the image as a testimony of the Father-children relationship which God established between himself and human beings at creation.”

[Quoted with permission from Jason Van Vliet, Children of God: The Imago Dei in John Calvin and His Context (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009), pp. 253f. Reformed Academic invites anyone who is qualified to submit a review of this new book.]

And so Calvin emphasizes relationship, in opposition to the medieval scholastics’ tendency to define the imago Dei in terms of rationality and will.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks for giving us this quotation from Dr. Jason van Vliet’s dissertation. From Lord’s Day 3 (Heidelberg Catechism) we learn that our being made in the image of God means that we were created “in true righteousness and holiness.” I take it that this is still part of the image, but I have always found it a bit difficult to reconcile it with such texts as Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9, where the Bible speaks of fallen man as being made in God’s own image. For that reason we may not murder or curse fellow human beings. If, with Calvin, we speak of the image as a matter not of being sinless but of relationship, these texts become much clearer. I still wonder, however, if human reason has nothing at all to do with our being made in God’s image? It is one of the characteristics that distinguishes us from other creatures and makes it possible for us to listen to and even to communicate with the Creator.