Three Critiques of Stuart Olyott on The Trinity

Stuart OlyottA few months ago I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s useful and short book, What the Bible Teaches about the Trinity. In that post I raised two areas where I felt the work fell short: meaningful application and developed understanding of the Holy Spirit. Both of those criticisms may be a little unfair, considering the brevity of Olyott’s book. But upon further reflection I became convinced that some of Olyott’s material warrants more detailed interaction. So under the three points below, I will raise some of my concerns and respond to them.

Blasphemy Against the Spirit

In a section on the full deity of the Holy Spirit, under the heading, The Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and honoured (p47-8), Olyott touches briefly on blasphemy against the Spirit: “Blasphemy is insulting the honour of God, and if the Holy Spirit were not God, it would be impossible to blaspheme against him. As it is, this sort of blasphemy is the most serious of all, and can never be forgiven (Matthew 12:31–32).” While the potential to blaspheme against the Spirit is a convincing argument for his deity, Olyott’s point is both pyric and inconsistent.

For starters, Jesus says that blasphemy against the Son of Man will be forgiven. By this logic, we could question Jesus’ full deity. Secondly, Olyott fails to interpret these verses in the context of Matthew’s gospel, resulting in a position that has caused much harm and anxiety over the years. Quoting Isaiah 42, Matthew identifies Jesus as God’s Spirit empowered servant, who embodies God’s promised rescue and hope (Matthew 12:17-21). He then triumphs over an afflicting demon, prompting the question pervasive to the Gospels, ‘Who is this? Can this be the Son of David?’ (12:22-23). The reader of Matthew knows the answer, because of the quote from Isaiah, but the Pharisees are predictably suspicious and dismissive claiming Jesus was only capable of such feats because he was a servant of Satan (12:24), rather than the suffering servant of Isaiah. Jesus highlights the folly of their accusation (12:25-29), and significantly in his defence states that he is empowered by the Spirit of God (12:28).

Mihaly MunkacsyWhat does any of this matter? Just before he mentions blasphemy of the Spirit, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (12:30). The Pharisees failed to recognise the beginning of Satan’s defeat and the inauguration of God’s kingdom, the ‘eucatastrophy’ they longed for. For they opposed the one who had come preaching the good news, partnered by God’s Spirit. Blasphemy against the Spirit is therefore not some abstract offence, or loose word I might have muttered only to never be forgiven; it is the deliberate rejection of God’s Christ, to set oneself up against the Spirit empowered servant. Apart from him there is no forgiveness of sins.

Praying to the Son and the Spirit

In chapter 3, commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, Olyott writes, “Prayer to God is not to be addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ, but to the one who is distinct from him—the Father” (p25). Later, while discussing the established Trinitarian heresies, Olyott labels thanking God for dying on the cross or for his indwelling presence Modalism (p86). Admittedly Olyott is defending the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit, cautioning us against saying of the Father what can be said only of the Son or of the Spirit. But this does not mean we cannot address the Son or the Spirit in prayer. Both clearly receive worship and praise. Why then do we prohibit prayer to the Son or the Spirit?

Richard BauckhamOlyott writes, “The New Testament knows very little of praying to the Lord Jesus Christ” (p91). Yet we can clearly read of prayer being addressed to the Son. “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (Acts 7:59-60). Paul, in 1 Timothy 1:12, writes, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus even invites his disciples to pray to him, in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” As Richard Bauckham points out, in Jesus and the God of Israel, “Acclamations and prayers addressed to Jesus go back to the earliest times…The New Testament evidence for personal prayer to Jesus as a regular feature of early Christianity has sometimes been underestimated.” Even if the prevailing practice was prayer to God the Father, Bauckham goes on to say, “Since Jesus was understood as the active mediator of grace from God…and as the Lord for whose service Christians lived, prayer addressed to him was natural.”

Orthodoxy and Salvation

Of the three points I make in this post, I imagine this last one might draw the most criticism. It also is not one that Olyott makes explicitly. However, he seems to make two contradictory statements about orthodoxy and salvation. Correctly he writes about Sabellius, most likely the father of what would come to be called Modalism, “Fortunately God does not listen to our words, but looks on our hearts, and the mediation of Christ guarantees that our prayers are presented in heaven without fault. And yet it is always dangerous to have wrong views of God” (p86). I made a similar point in an old post on Origen. But a few pages on, Olyott undoes his generous statement about heterodoxy or heresy, lumping Modalists with Muslims, animists, and pagans (p87). “The only true God is the one who has revealed himself in the Scriptures, and this is what he has revealed…A belief in the Trinity is essential to salvation.” Bringing his book to a close, he states this point more emphatically: “There can be no salvation where there is no belief in the Trinity” (p90). I feel like I might lose my job by disagreeing with such a statement. But should we really base salvation on the grounds of orthodox Trinitarian belief? I know nothing of that in Scripture.

Roman TrialJesus is fully God, as are the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet the salvation he offers, the work he accomplished, was not the overturning of our ignorance about the Trinity but the forgiveness of our sins at the cross. It is ours by faith, not intellectual ascent. Belief is primarily, as I read it in the New Testament, trusting in God’s grace made known in Christ, long before it is believing the right things about God. Surely this is what Jesus means in John 17:3 when he said that eternal life is knowing the only true God, and Jesus whom he sent.

Responding to Challies: Is It Okay To Deliberately Not Have Children?

Christopher AshYesterday Tim Challies posted asking if Christian couples can decide not to have children. The article relies on and develops a few points Christopher Ash makes in his excellent book, Married for God. However, I cannot agree with the reasoning of either Challies or Ash. Having heard similar arguments in numerous conversations, I remain unconvinced that Christian couples must have children or that the decision not to is sinful. I have planned a series of posts on the topic, and we might call this short response some of the first fruits.

Challies’ first point addresses the false dichotomy between having children and serving God. Quoting Ash, “We do not serve God rather than having children; we serve God by having children.” It is a true point: the married couple need not choose between having children and serving God, since rearing children is certainly one of the places married couples serve God. But that does not make it an essential means of serving God in marriage.

Later in the article, Challies presents his own false dichotomy: embracing children as blessing from God or calling them a curse. Really? When a friend chooses to remain celibate for whatever reason do we accuse him of calling marriage a curse? Or, let’s consider a passage often dragged into this discussion, ‘Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children’ (Psalm 127:5). Does the couple that decide to have just two children call the “full quiver” (four, five, a Catholic dozen) a curse? We are not strung between calling children a curse or a blessing.

Finally, Challies makes a point that I really appreciated: children are uninvited strangers that couples must extend sacrificial hospitality to. Unlike our spouse or close friends we cannot choose children that suit us. However, reading this point did bring to mind another, made by Stanley Hauerwas, “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do…give it a while and he or she will change…The primary problem [then] is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” On top of Hauerwas’ point, both Old and New Testaments encourage believers to entertain and care for strangers. Furthermore, if ever there was a place that forced unlooked for and very often inconvenient relationships it is the local church. Sure, children interrupt marriages causing sanctification and forcing hospitality. But they are not the only place where couples can practice hospitality and putting strangers ahead of themselves.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I hope to write more on this topic. I admit that this response is rushed and does not present any arguments in favour of deliberate childlessness, nor does it deal with the question of Genesis 1-2 and the creation mandate. Hopefully those will come. But in the mean time, it is frustrating to hear the poorly thought-out arguments mentioned above that prove nothing, yet somehow are persistently plied as if they did.

Brokenness: How We Reframe Sin

Broken WorldPastors and service leaders often tell stories or make reference to a sporting event or news item to connect with the congregation. Recently, however, I have noticed these techniques give way to the sure-fire connection that is made when the person upfront talks about brokenness. At a prayer meeting someone lamented,

We are broken people
Living in a broken world
Breaking things

And on reflection, I wouldn’t argue with it.

I also didn’t argue with it when it was said because we were talking about plenty of truly broken things in people’s lives. Things over which they had no control and that introduced seemingly senseless pain. Brokenness is a word that captures this idea really well and yet, I remember a time when I would have said, “We are fallen people living in a fallen world.” So I’ve been wondering about the difference.

My church did a series on Joel – the minor prophet who spends three chapters finding synonyms for “swarm of locusts.” The locusts come as God’s judgement on Israel. “Why are you telling me this?” you ask. Because somehow we did not talk about judgement in the series: week one: “the power of stories,” week two: “the possibility that pain is for our good,” week three: “the hope for restoration” (my titles). Each week the worship leader would welcome us and talk about how we probably all had rough weeks and that we come together as broken people to be refreshed by the Word and I was being my usual (non-critical) self thinking, “what happened to sin?”

Broken JarThen it dawned on me. Brokenness is something that happens to us. Jars get dropped, balls hit windows, iphones fall out of pockets – they all get broken and they are broken through no fault of their own. Broken things are victims. We are victims.

On the other hand, sin is something that we do. We are the perpetrators: we pull the trigger, we bend the truth, two options are presented and we choose the morally inferior one. Sinners are blameworthy and we haven’t wanted to take the blame since back in the garden.

I’m still not sure what the difference between fallenness and brokenness is but I am pretty confident about the difference between brokenness and sin. And the reason that the worship leader keeps talking about brokenness at the beginning of the service and we keep praying about it in prayer meetings is the same reason that the sermon series on Joel never accused me of being a sinner. I don’t like taking the blame.

Brokenness reframes sin turning us into victims
rather than perpetrators

Don’t misunderstand me. There are broken things and we are broken people. Not every bad thing that happened to you is the result of your own sin. And yet, the reason that I live in a sinful world is as much about me as it is about anyone else. Maybe in a generation that has such apathy to obedience and holiness, it’s time to own up to the part we play in breaking our world.

A Note on Analogies

After the publication of my previous post critiquing Andrew Heard’s lifeboat analogy for the church, it was suggested to me that I develop some of my thoughts on analogies, or illustrations, in general. However I cannot pretend to have mastered the use of analogies; in my own preaching, I use them very sparingly. Briefly, in writing, I have explored an abused illustration from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“He’s not safe but He’s good”) and Jesus’ parable of the field, but those are not detailed studies in the praxis. So in this short post I will merely summarise some thoughts on illustrations I have borrowed from the appendix to Pierced for Our Transgressions.

Their purpose

AnalogyThe authors of Pierced write, “An illustration works well when it corresponds closely to the biblical idea it seeks to explain. Translating an unfamiliar concept into everyday terms can bring clarity and perhaps also a certain vividness and immediacy. It brings our world and the Bible’s world together, and puts us and our lives into the picture.” Illustrations function as useful bridges helping us understand something strange or peculiar by something familiar or easily understood.

The dangers

As we read above, illustrations are useful, but they can also be misleading. The thrust of my previous post is well summarised in Pierced, “Illustrations never correspond to reality at every point, and it is at the points of difference that they may mislead.” However, the authors continue, “The fact that an illustration does not correspond with reality at every point does not mean it will always mislead; merely that it ought to be used to illustrate only those aspects of reality with which it does correspond.” Therefore we must be aware of an illustrations deficiencies, which can confuse and obscure, the opposite of their intended purpose.

Though they are addressing the atonement, Pierced reads insightfully for any illustration, “Even if we choose (wisely) to illustrate just one aspect…we must take care we do not inadvertently distort other closely related themes…To avoid being misunderstood, we need to consider the specific strengths and weaknesses of any given illustration: what it captures well, and where it might fail.” On the topic of church, since that was my concern with Heard’s illustration, the lifeboat analogy distorts other aspects of the church’s mission by overemphasising evangelism at the expense of maturity. Obviously, those are closely related but – in my opinion – the lifeboat overlooks or redefines the importance of godliness and service by conflating maturity with evangelism. While the lifeboat illustrates the desperate urgency of the church’s mission it places far too little emphasis on the biblical emphasis and zeal we should have for maturing, tested, and transforming faith in Christ.

The authors of Pierced then call preachers to take care that their analogies are not pushed too far so that they inadvertently illustrate the wrong thing. As I said previously: there are better illustrations that inform us about the mission and shape of the local church as well as our place in it, so we should be cautious when an illustration not found in Scripture dominates our understanding. “To repeat: it is the points at which they fail to correspond to reality that are liable to mislead.” Should every Christian’s primary concern be the lost, hauling them up from the deadly waters, rescuing them from a Christless eternity? Yes, we should zealously long to see as many as possible saved. But, no, it is not the primary point of the church’s existence; it is one of them.

The careful approach

PreachingI think Pierced ties all of the mentioned dangers up well, “The risk of [overstretching an analogy] is increased when we are attempting to explain something complicated, for no single analogy will be up to the job.” I acknowledge that Andrew Heard was speaking at a conference on church growth, allowing for a selective approach. However, the church and Christian life is complicated, even when honing in on a single component, such as evangelism. As for most things, one analogy can only successfully illustrate part of the truth. I think that is why we are given such an abundance of them in Scripture. It is not enough to merely be aware of our analogies’ shortcomings; we must temper and supplement them with others.

In conclusion, and to stave off despair, “We may be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration and concede defeat…no illustration is perfect, if by ‘perfect’ we mean it corresponds with reality at every point.” But that does not mean every illustration is invalid; we are not doomed to mislead with every analogy. We must recognise where they fall short, and ask if those deficiencies are unhelpful; make sure closely related concepts are not obscured; and resist overextending this great God-given tool.

Some Misgivings about Andrew Heard’s Lifeboat Analogy

In a recent conversation about the latest Generate Conference, a friend shared his reservations about an analogy Andrew Heard deployed in almost every session. If you are unfamiliar with it, the idea is this: an unprecedented maritime disaster has struck and you are the captain of a rescue vessel sent to the affected area. The bottom line for measuring the lifeboat’s success is the number of people on-board, souls saved. As Heard repeatedly emphasised: you should never reach a point when you are satisfied with how many have been rescued. And if people are dying you cannot be too concerned about the comfort of those already in the lifeboat. Rather, each person brought up from the waters needs to join in the task of rescuing others.

Texas Sept 2013There are undoubtedly many positive uses of this analogy, and Heard utilises it fluidly, from challenging Christians in the church who grumble when evangelism is persistently urged, to pastors who have become heroically pessimistic and satisfied with underperformance, stagnant ministries whose battle hymn is: ‘We are being faithful.’ The analogy provides a much-needed reminder of what is at stake: those who have not come to Christ will die without him. We must be more concerned for those still in the water than those who have already been rescued. Perhaps its most valuable application is its stress on the activity, read ministry, of those on-board. We should not rely on an exhausted team of workers, inches from burning out, when we can join in the operation, making it further reaching and far more successful. But I worry that an overdependence on this analogy in articulating the identity and purpose of Christ’s church could be harmful.

My friend expressed hesitation toward the analogy on the basis that despite the litany of analogies found in the New Testament that describe the church – body, temple, household, and family, to name a few – we do not find one remotely similar to the lifeboat. Therefore, as a preliminary point, it cannot be our primary analogy for describing the church or understanding its mission. Yet, for Heard, the analogy seems to influence and express his thinking at a number of points. While everyone knows that metaphors are pliable, I think we would do better in understanding and employing the numerous biblical metaphors about the church. Metaphors are also admittedly imperfect, meaning their use can be unhelpful, even misleading. So below I want to highlight a few of my misgivings.

Rescued souls need care

As I argued in another post, Can Satan Grow the Church?, exploring Jesus’ analogy of the field and the weeds: the size of a church can be very misleading. A church can be bursting at the seams, yet full of those who do not actually belong to Christ. What Heard’s analogy subtly implies is that we simply need to get people on-board, into the church and committed to reaching others. Yet this overlooks the fact that many who have been brought in will be in desperate need of further resuscitation, attention and care. It is no use having a boat full of: spiritual corpses; barely living and bedraggled souls crawling back towards the waters of sin and death; and others whose only appearance of life is their zeal for those not yet in the boat. To add to the analogy, the deck needs to be packed full of paramedics checking the vitals of those rescued, issuing care, and strengthening them for the task.

Rashly appointing the ill-equipped

Building on my previous concern, fixing our focus on those not yet in the boat will mean viewing those in the boat as little more than tools for that task. But tools need to be fashioned, after they have been cared for. In fact, people are more than mere tools or pragmatic partners in reaching the dying. Though Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 3:6 against appointing new converts concerns elders, I believe that it can function as a more general caution against hastily placing people into ministry roles, since even those who are being assessed to serve as deacons must be tested (3:10). If we overemphasise the need for reaching outsiders we will fail to prepare our people for that task or – and this might be worse – we will cease seeing our people as partners and begin to treat them like tools.

Real danger of unbiblical measurements

This last point is one that I hope to develop at another time. Fruitfulness in the Christian life, from my reading of the New Testament, is rarely tied to conversions but is almost always about character and Christlikeness. My fear for the lifeboat analogy is the unbiblical evaluation of Christians: pragmatism over personal growth. If we believe that the church is first and foremost a means for saving souls then that will be how we evaluate souls on board, by their usefulness in the mission. While maturity results in making the gospel attractive, it cannot be reduced to service and must certainly not be restricted to a Christian’s evangelistic zeal or efforts. We should desire transformation, godliness, opposition to sin, and lives of worship.

Church underwaterThis post is written generally as a caution against making any metaphor a controlling one, especially when it is not explicitly found in Scripture. But, more specifically, I am writing this post as a call for discernment. Is the church primarily a lifeboat with the mission to rescue as many people from death as possible? I am not sure that it is. Especially not when the result is an emphasis on those outside of the boat at the expense of those within. I do not have an analogy to offer in place of the lifeboat, but we would do well to start with those provided for us in the New Testament. Nor do I think we need to throw this analogy overboard. It is useful, especially to illustrate some of those things mentioned at the opening of this post. But, in my opinion, it is not the best or most helpful analogy for understanding the identity and purpose of Christ’s church.

Book Review: What the Bible Teaches About the Trinity

Considering the present theological maelstrom about the Trinity punctuating most timelines and newsfeeds, I chalked it up to providence when I was given this short book to review. While the intricacies of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father will be dismissed as a superfluous conversation by many, studying what God has revealed about himself as both three and one – Father, Son, and Spirit, yet one God and not three gods – is not a subject (if we can call it that) that any Christian should pass over. Indeed, every Christian should be familiar with what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. In this helpful and mercifully short book Stuart Olyott sets out to do just that.

Stuart OlyottIn the introduction, Olyott offers his work as a primer, both concise and accessible. Without assuming to settle minor and infinitely complicated details about our doctrine of the Trinity, throughout the book the reader is presented with the major tenets and a few key passages. He acknowledges disagreements, mostly those of the past, and modestly owns that there is much as creatures we will never comprehend. Instead his modest aim for the work is that, “It will remove that sense of strangeness that you may feel as you first approach this deep subject and make it possible for you to progress where once you thought you would never begin” (p7). Olyott achieves this, providing his reader with a very useful and far from insignificant first step in their lifelong study of the living and true God, the Trinity.

Even though Olyott overstates the point when he writes that no question about God containing the word ‘how’ can be answered (p15), I appreciate that he makes humility and adoration key components to his work. As the author says, “We come as humble learners, searching the Scriptures…humbled that we cannot enter anywhere, except where he has permitted. We are not as God. We are creatures. We can never discover what he has not revealed” (p16). This is such an important and often overlooked point when it comes to the Trinity, specifically, and Christian doctrine, generally. We come to God as fallen and finite creatures, meaning it is appropriate we do not view the subject of God’s nature, or any theological matter, as one we might master. Rather, as Olyott insists from the beginning of his book and concludes in his final chapter, we should walk away from theological study as reverent worshippers. Olyott’s book captures these twin attitudes, as the author refuses to venture far beyond what we can know from Scipture and he brings the book to a close exploring how the truth of God as Trinity shapes worship and prayer.

TrinityWith this attitude of teachable humility and reverence, Olyott approaches the deep truths of God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. You can read other reviews to learn how the book is laid out; here I want to briefly comment on the general flow and aims of the book. Olyott identifies three Trinitarian heresies that have almost always existed in the church: polytheism, Unitarianism or Monarchianism, and modalism (p51; expanded on p81-86). The first overstates God’s plurality or threeness, resulting in three gods as opposed to the God who is one. The second favours God’s oneness and generally– for example in Arianism – denies the full divinity of the Son or the Spirit. The third suggests that God has at different points in history worn different masks, meaning there is no Son for God simply took another form or mode. But identifying the common heresies that ignore and twist the witness of Scripture does not get us where we need to be. Olyott then unpacks the mystery of the Trinity, affirming threeness and oneness, distinction and unity, the full divinity of each person of the Trinity with the repeated scriptural insistence that there is one God. This forms the bulk of the work and is worth reflective reading, critical engagement, and serious study. Olyott carefully guides the reader through the turbulent waters of Trinitarian theology, making all the necessary stops, and only a few that would have been better left out of a primer. The author works hard throughout his work to make plain what has been revealed to us but also warning against that which has not. I appreciated his simplicity, especially considering that God’s Triune being is perhaps the greatest mystery we will ever encounter (p16); and I thought the strict dismissal of all analogies for the Trinity was an important challenge to teachers and students alike (p78, 86). Though he covers immense ground in a short space, Olyott does well to avoid reductionism and shows that when it comes to the Trinity responsible simplicity can only go so far.

Before concluding this review, it must be said that while Olyott demonstrates the appropriate instinct to turn his abridged theology into doxology, I found his application to be shallow. This shallowness also extends to Olyott’s theological corrections, which are dated. On the first criticism, my want for application, to limit the practical value of the doctrine of the Trinity to worship, prayer, and salvation feels like a sermon where the application is: read your Bible, pray, and evangelise. To pick just a few examples, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is immensely important for our understanding of the cross, progressive holiness or sanctification, God’s comforting and powerful presence, being transformed by God’s Word, and properly grasping human nature since we are made in the image of God. Secondly, the book possesses too few timely corrections that the proper understanding of the nature and work of God results in. Obviously this is not a work exclusively on the Holy Spirit, but pneumatology is an area where modern misunderstandings must be challenged. And I am not only talking disagreements about spiritual gifts or growing Pentecostalism; we desperately need work to be done around the role of the Spirit in empowering and making Christians fruitful, illuminating Scripture, and convicting us of sin. These were my two major criticisms of the book: it lacked rich, practical application and did not adequately challenge the significant errors that result from an incomplete view of God as he has revealed himself. But the brief work more than makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere.

Scotum FideiIn closing, let me reiterate the outstanding positives of Olyott’s work: accessibility, humility in approaching this study, application of the truth that God is Trinity, careful treatment what Scripture teaches, and the correction of common Trinitarian heresies, unwitting and deliberate. I have other further questions that I would like to raise but this review is already far too long. Therefore I highlighted just two concerns about the book, chosen because of the nature and intended audience of book: application and challenging prevalent misunderstandings. Having said that, my copy is well marked and I plan on returning to it in the future as both a teaching resource and invaluably concise reminder of the God whom we worship.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. If you enjoyed this then you might enjoy other reviews I have written, here and here, covering some theological works, Christian living, and a few novels.