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.

Galatians: No Other Gospel

GalatiansFor the next two quarters my church will be working through Galatians in our small groups. I have decided to attempt a translation of Paul’s letter, with the hope that it will aid insights into the details of the text and illumine the overarching purpose of the book. It must be noted: I am not promising this will result in regular posts on Galatians. In this short post I want to reflect on a point that you certainly do not need Greek to uncover: there is only one gospel. But while Galatians 1:6-9 is fairly straightforward to understand, a closer reading lends striking colour to Paul’s assertion.

The churches of Galatia were deserting – not Paul but – God, the one who called them in grace, for a different gospel (1:6). We might even conclude that they were deflecting to another god. But how and why did this happen quickly? I think the answer partly comes in 1:7-9. The troubler makers had not entirely reinvented the apostolic message but subtly distorted it (1:7). I imagine they still used words like “grace,” phrases like “the gospel of Christ,” and called people to faith in Jesus. However, they had introduced irreconcilable elements that destabilized the gospel, without altering it beyond surface level recognition. As we read through the letter we learn that the Galatian issue was the confusion between our works and Christ’s sufficient work. The success of the false teachers in Galatia, like many today, was due to them being barely distinguishable from Paul. They did not appear to change much; perhaps they claimed to simply emphasise different aspects of the gospel message. But the results are always the same: a different gospel leads us away from the true God.

GalatiansI promised myself that these posts would be short, and therefore not too onerous on you the reader, or my time, so let me make one more point. In 1:8-9, Paul twice uses the verb ‘proclaim good news.’ The false teachers came to the Galatian Christians with an appealing message, something happily received as good tidings. The verb is the same one used throughout the New Testament to speak of God’s salvation. And so as we saw above, the greatest danger of other gospels is when they are difficult to discern from the true gospel of grace. Politicians, advertisements, and preachers proclaim good news. However, the major distinction between the gospel of Christ (see 1:10-12) and the many gospels championed around the world is that only the former tells us what we desperately need to hear, while the others are shaped by what we want to hear.

I have also previously written on Galatians 3, discussing what it means for the Christian to be free from law.

Redeeming Origen: The Godly Heretic

Early church fathers - OrigenIf you know anything about Origen, then chances are that it’s one of two things: he emasculated himself in striving for sexual purity, and his theology undergirds Rob Bell’s universalistic enterprise. Simply put, he was harmfully ascetic and perilously heretical. But I fear the modern perceptions of Origen ignore that he was a man of uncommon zeal, who possessed the rare combination of intellectual brilliance and genuine humility. Church historian Williston Walker says there was no man of purer spirit or nobler aims in the early church than Origen. In Origen we meet a man who desired to present the Christian faith in its splendid array of practical truths which capture whole people for Christ.

The scope and reach of his theological works are unparalleled for his time; including the Hexapla, commentaries and notes on most of Scripture, apologetics, practically rich sermons, and one of the earliest systematic theologies in Christendom, De Principiis. The necessary qualification to make regarding his list of achievements is that he was for the most part consistent with the church tradition and teaching of his age, this included a rudimentary Trinitarianism and the view that Scripture was inspired. But being a child of Alexandrian thinking, Origen was heavily influenced by Hellenistic philosophy. This meant that beyond the literal meaning of Scripture he believed there was a deeper and more spiritual meaning. So Origen popularised allegorical interpretation. His emphasis on the place of philosophy in theology, coupled with the desire to add knowledge to faith, was both the strongest and weakest aspect of Origen’s writing.

De Principiis - OrigenAn entire blog post could be, and many probably have been, written studying the relationship between Origen’s Christian theology and Platonic philosophy, or his contemporary, Plotinus. I will leave it up to you to write or read those posts, elsewhere. It will suffice to say that ultimately Origen’s theological structure collapsed because it was largely built on Platonism. His Platonic view of humanity concluded that our entire life, as pre-existence creatures who suffer in the shadow world, Plato’s cave, is a kind of purgatory, and therefore salvation meant returning to the spiritual reality. This demonstrates his theological method, which often overlooked Scripture in favour of philosophy.

It is not difficult to conclude, with many Christians today, that Origen’s speculative and philosophical bent derailed his theological system and imports dangerous ideas into our own. However, I would suggest another conclusion to consider: Origen demonstrates the inquisitive character necessary for theology. Christian theology, the prayerful study of our infinite God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and his Son, is carried out by fallen and finite creatures. Therefore, as Kelly Kapic says, we must avoid the path of pride burdened by defensiveness and unmoving self-assurance. Even a brief survey of church history reveals a maze of treatises, doctrinal formulations and theological debates that urge us to be weary of being too dogmatic. Of course, Scripture remains foundational and biblical exegesis must drive our systematics, but we are fools when we put aside inquisitive thinking out of rigid preference for what is already established.

There is, I think, another valuable lesson to learn when we study Origen: though we might disagree with other Christians’ theological positions (and there is a place for publically challenging divergent schools of thought) we should be slower to condemn Christians on the basis of their theology and rather observe God’s transforming grace in their lives. Origen was a great man who lived before God, actively pursuing a life of obedience and ultimately dying for the glory of Christ. How quickly we forget that God desires right hearts before right theology. Donald Macleod, in The Person of Christ, writes that Evangelicalism has always recognised that, “Someone may have little knowledge of the great creeds and yet have a real, living faith in Christ” meaning that while it is sometimes necessary to denounce a man’s heretical teaching we should also pay full tribute to their piety. That is the difficult path that we must navigate today.