Monday, May 7, 2012

Reformed confessions and "the so-called ecumenical councils of the first several centuries"


This last Saturday, I received in the mail the latest issue (June, 2012) of R.C. Sproul's (Ligonier Ministries)  Tabletalk  magazine. Given the content of my March 2 and 27, 2012 threads, I found the following to be of interest:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Protestant movement began, various ecclesiastical groups created confessions, creedal statements that set forth the doctrines these groups embraced. In the main, these documents reiterated that body of doctrine that had been passed down through the centuries, having been defined in the so-called ecumenical councils of the first several centuries. (R.C. Sproul, "The Church Is One", Tabletalk, June, 2012, pp. 4, 5.)

Though not explicit, I suspect, "that body of doctrine", mentioned above, pertains primarily to theology proper, and christology. With this in mind, have the Protestant confessions of "sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" truly and faithfully, "reiterated that body of doctrine that had been passed down through the centuries, having been defined in the so-called ecumenical of the first several centuries"?

Before any assessment can be made concerning the above question, one must first identify what the "the so-called ecumenical of the first several centuries" and Protestant confessions of "sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" actually taught/teach concerning God and Jesus Christ. The content of the creeds produced at Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 have been examined at length in the following threads:

The Nicene Creed vs. the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

When (and which), are councils and creeds infallible?

The original Nicene Creed and semantic confusion

In those threads, and subsequent ones that build upon them (e.g. THESE THREADS), I have placed an emphasis on what those creeds conveyed to the readers of the time in which they were composed, refusing to accommodate what those creeds actually said to subsequent developmental trajectories. I believe that the doctrine of God presented in those two creeds is accurately and faithfully summarized in the "5 propositions" that I presented in THIS THREAD.

With the above background in place, I would like to now examine whether or not the Protestant confessions of the "sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" have been faithful to the two above creeds on the first and foremost article of faith promulgated in them: who/what is the "One God"?

The Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds both open with:

Πιστεύομεν ες να Θεν Πατέρα παντοκράτορα - We believe in one God the Father almighty

Compare this with a few of the more esteemed Reformed creeds of the "sixteenth and seventeenth centuries":

Belgic Confession

Article I. THERE IS ONE ONLY GOD

We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, wise, and the overflowing fountain of all good. (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3.383, 384)

Westminster Confession of Faith

Chapter II - Of God and the Holy Trinity

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 them 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. (Ibid., 3.606, 607)

The Second Helvetic Confession

Chapter III - OF GOD; THE UNITY AND THE TRINITY

We believe and teach that God is one in essence or nature, subsisting by himself, all-sufficient in himself, invisible, without body, infinite, eternal, the Creator of all things both visible and invisible, the chief good, living, quickening and preserving all things, almighty and supremely wise, gentle or merciful, just and true. (Ibid., 3.835)

The Baptist Confession of 1689

Chapter 2: Of God and of the Holy Trinity

1. The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, 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 them 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. (Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1690 Baptist Confession of Faith, 1989, p. 53)

The opening article of faith, "There is but one God the Father", found in Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds has been completely abandoned, and instead, replaced by an essence/nature (referred to via the singular, personal pronoun, He).

Now, yet once again, I ask my readers: has this significant change in the Reformed creeds, truthfully and faithfully, "reiterated that body of doctrine that had been passed down through the centuries, having been defined in the so-called ecumenical of the first several centuries"?

IMO the most obvious and objective answer is a resounding NO.


Grace and peace,

David

12 comments:

Drake Shelton said...

I don't see how those examples are anything different from what the eastern Church or the Roman Church Teaches. The Eastern Church says that both divine essence and hypostases of the divine persons are huperousia. If that is the case then no distinctions between the persons is possible. But that is the same problem with the Roman Absolute Divine Simplicity.

David Waltz said...

Hi Drake,

Thanks for responding; you wrote:

==I don't see how those examples are anything different from what the eastern Church or the Roman Church Teaches.==

Me: On the whole, I agree. But, with that said, I would like to add a few items: first, the thread was directed at certain claims made by Dr. Sproul in the context of the Reformed faith; second, the teaching/s on God and Jesus Christ related above in the cited Reformed creeds are not to be found in the so-called 7 ecumenical creeds that are binding on the EO churches; and third, though the seeds of the change from the one God being God the Father to the divine essence/nature being the one God were planted by Augustine, it was not until 4th council of Constantinople (869/870), the 8th so-called ecumenical council of the RCC, that it became binding upon Catholics.

==The Eastern Church says that both divine essence and hypostases of the divine persons are huperousia. If that is the case then no distinctions between the persons is possible. But that is the same problem with the Roman Absolute Divine Simplicity.==

Me: I am not an expert on EO thought, so I would like to ask you a question: are there any creeds/definitions outside of those found in the accepted 7 ecumenical councils that are binding on all EO churches?


Grace and peace,

David

Nick said...

I don't see when this charge from God going from Person to Essence was ever formally promulgated in Catholicism nor have I seen where the EO charge this as error. It seems the Councils didn't go into that detail when composing the Creed.

In the Westminster Confession 8:2 it says this of Jesus: "Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man."
http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/

That's material heresy at worst, poor wording at least, for it makes Christ's personhood a compound of Divine and Human.

Lvka said...

Their definitions remind me of John Damascene's Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith...

But here's something else: on one hand, they say the Divinity is without passions; on the other hand they say that God's ego was offended by Adam's transgression so much, that -in His rage- He had to kill His own Son to satisfy His wrath...

David Waltz said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks much for taking the time to weigh-in; you penned:

==I don't see when this charge from God going from Person to Essence was ever formally promulgated in Catholicism nor have I seen where the EO charge this as error. It seems the Councils didn't go into that detail when composing the Creed.==

In the 8th Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, for the first time to my knowledge, we have in an official, binding, creedal statement that the "one God" is identified as "one nature" (though admittedly by analogy); and that, "We confess, indeed, God to be one, unique in respect of substance". This is an important/significant change from the previous councils which consistently identified the "one God" with the Father.

I am thinking of working on a thread on this issue (i.e. the change mentioned above), and the implications that it seem to present.

As for the quote from the WCF, it does seem to be "poor wording". I did not notice this before, so thanks for pointing it out. After lunch, I will check a couple of WCF commentaries I own to see what they say...


Grace and peace,

David

Drake Shelton said...

David,

"I am not an expert on EO thought, so I would like to ask you a question: are there any creeds/definitions outside of those found in the accepted 7 ecumenical councils that are binding on all EO churches?"

No. The Council of Jersualem in the 17th century is not exactly an ecumenical council and many dispute it. But if I remember some think it is ecumenical. Good luck reading Reformed Commentaries and trying to find precise worsing on Christology and Triadology. They are for the most part terrible on this issue. The Calvinist Reformation focused on authority and worship not triadology and christology.

Lvka, the word "wrath" is used anthromomophically in Reformed theology to refer to a necessary volition within God with respect to justice.

I'm still waiting to see replies from the East on how they distinguish essence from hypostasis when both are huperousia.

Jnorm said...

Drake,


Our Essence vs Energy distinction makes our """interpretation""" of Absolute Divine Simplicity """different""" from that of the west.

Yes, we believe in Absolute Divine Simplicity, but it's more of a Complex Absolute Divine Simplicity that allows distinctions.

A number of Eastern Church Fathers advocated """a form""" of Absolute Divine Simplicity, but they also advocated Apophatic theology as well and so their form of Absolute Divine Simplicity was different. It was more complex.


Our view/interpretation of ADS allows for Free Will as well as a number of other things.

Drake Shelton said...

Jnorm,

“Our Essence vs Energy distinction makes our """interpretation""" of Absolute Divine Simplicity """different""" from that of the west.”

>>>In a sense that is true but in another its not. The West see’s no energy in the realm of being that also happens to be constitutive of divine nature. So in that sense that is true. However, the east also sees the essence of God being huperousia, as does the Thomistic West.

“Yes, we believe in Absolute Divine Simplicity, but it's more of a Complex Absolute Divine Simplicity that allows distinctions.”

>>>From what I read in Farrell and Bradshaw ADS is an aspect of energy not essence. So I understand it is very different from Thomistic West.

“A number of Eastern Church Fathers advocated """a form""" of Absolute Divine Simplicity, but they also advocated Apophatic theology as well and so their form of Absolute Divine Simplicity was different. It was more complex.

Our view/interpretation of ADS allows for Free Will as well as a number of other things.”

>>>OK but you are still not answering the questions:

1.How you distinguish essence from hypostasis when both are huperousia.

2.If both essence and hypostasis are huperousia, then there is no hypostatic union. You would then be left with an energetic union. I am grateful to Aquinas for showing me that the union between divine and human in Christ is not at the level of nature but hypostasis. But if hypostasis is huperousia, energy is the only divine thing left for humanity to unite with in Christ.

Lvka said...

To my recollection, God is called hyper-ousios because His ousia is unlike any other. I don't remember the word being used to describe either 'personhood' or 'energies'.

Drake Shelton said...

Lvka, Perry admitted to me here: http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/the-communication-of-attributes/

at post 181 about 7 paragraphs down,

"I don’t separate the persons from the huperousia essence because I take the persons to be huper ousia also."

Jengie Jon said...

The fact that essence is used is nothing more than a direct lifting from the translation of the Athanasius Creed which is part of the Ecumenical councils. I have been taught it, which is why I am aware of the baggage "essence" carries. So no the Reformers are not intentionally adding anything.

The argument I usually hear from the Orthodox is that the Western Church tends to be more Unitarian with a modalistic approach to the Trinity rather than truly Trinitarian, you are arguing the opposite which would suggest a move back towards the Orthodox stance from that of the Western Church.

I would rather suggest you need to know more patristics before you comment on the Reformers, they did know that.

David Waltz said...

Hi Jengie,

I do not know for sure if your post was directed at Drake, me, or perhaps both of us. Given the age of this thread, I doubt Drake will be responding. With that said, I would like to address a few items from your post—you wrote:

==The fact that essence is used is nothing more than a direct lifting from the translation of the Athanasius Creed which is part of the Ecumenical councils. I have been taught it, which is why I am aware of the baggage "essence" carries. So no the Reformers are not intentionally adding anything.==

Me: The so-called Athanasian Creed (not the "Athanasius Creed"), also know as the Quicunque Vult, IS NOT "part of the Ecumenical councils" (i.e. no Ecumenical council either produced and/or officially adopted the creed). Further, patristic scholars are quite adamant that Athanasius did not produce the creed.

==The argument I usually hear from the Orthodox is that the Western Church tends to be more Unitarian with a modalistic approach to the Trinity rather than truly Trinitarian, you are arguing the opposite which would suggest a move back towards the Orthodox stance from that of the Western Church.==

Me: My "move" is back towards the consensus of Church Fathers prior to Augustine (Greek and Latin).

==I would rather suggest you need to know more patristics before you comment on the Reformers, they did know that.==

Me: Hmmm...I have been a student of patristics for more than 30 years now, with over 500 books in my personal library devoted to the subject.


Grace and peace,

David