John Peckham calls his conception of God covenantal theism. To make the case for covenantal theism, he uses a two-fold standard. Theological concussions must be biblically warranted and systematically coherent (250). Through this biblical and systematically coherent method, Peckham aims to describe God according to Scripture.
His goal is to better understand the nature and attributes of God (1). In pursuit of this understanding, he asks key questions about God that he believes the Bible can answer. “These questions include: Does God change? Does God have emotions” Does God know everything, including the future? Is God all-powerful? Does everything occur as God wills? Is God entirely good and loving? How can God be one God and three persons?” (1).
In this sense, even though Peckham aims to discern God according to biblical warrant, he nevertheless starts with a set of questions. I say this not as a critique but a clarification of how Peckham makes his argument. That said, Peckham’s Divine Attributes is full of Bible. In the first pages, Peckham lists biblical patterns of speech about God before summarizing these patterns. He also interacts widely with other contemporary writers, even some less known but important authors like James Dolezal.
Peckham summarizes his argument economically and in more than one place. By covenantal theism, he aims to describe God as the Bible describes him. The term covenantal conveys “that God enters into real back-and-forth relationship with creatures but does so voluntarily, remaining transcendent even as he condescends to be with us (immanent)” (37). He then defines the attributes he discerns in Scripture: “In brief, covenantal theism affirms God’s aseity and self-sufficiency, qualified immutability and passibility, everlasting eternity, omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence and sovereign providence, conventional action, omnibenevolence, and relational triunity” (37).
He will also talk about God being analogically temporal and in a real relation with the world through, as noted, a back-and-forth covenantal relationship (250). He elsewhere explains: “While God’s essential nature is changeless, the covenantal God of Scripture changes relationally because he voluntarily engages in back-and-forth (covenant) relationship with creatures while always remaining the same trinitarian God who was and is and is to come” (254). While he claims to hold to a qualified immutability and impassibility, such statements do not seem to match historic idioms and notions of these concepts. Of the latter, in the context of a theodicy of love, Peckham notes that “the voluntary suffering of God of the cross suffers most of all” (253). As I will argue below, this language appears in the tradition but not in the way that Peckham uses it.
He also does not affirm simplicity (241) and defines the Trinity along social trinitarian lines (244). Each person of the Trinity has “a distinct faculty of reason, will, and self-consciousness” (253). When it comes to trinitarian relations, he sees no biblical warrant for eternal relations of origin, eternal generation either (237). Again, these conclusions flow out of his method of biblical warrant and systematic coherence. With this method and Peckham’s conclusions summarized, I want to reflect on his method (he calls it canonical theology), which relies on biblical warrant and systematic coherence.
A Minimalist Approach That Occasionally Feels Maximalist
His method has the benefit of providing a control for his theological conclusions. And since he recognizes our creaturely finitude and fallibility (and so imperfect knowledge), Peckham takes a minimalist approach to the divine attributes: “I have attempted to outline a minimal understanding of some divine attributes that is faithful to the story line and teachings of Scripture while seeking to limit my claims according to the standards of biblical warrant and systematic coherence” (250; cf. 30).
Here is where Peckham, I believe, runs into some dicey waters. While affirming that he takes a minimalist approach, he makes claims about God that feel maximal. For example, Peckham affirms God experiences time in some fashion: “God is not timeless” (251). Certainly, this positive claim is only analogical for Peckham (251). Yet he still argues that God in some fashion experiences time “differently than creatures” but nevertheless along the same plane of temporal existence (251).
In contrast, the strong classical theist tradition that Peckham rejects—more on this in a bit—claims that God does not exist within the same plane of temporal experience that humans do. The reason why is that God is supraessential, beyond being, and so incomprehensible. Such apophatic (negative) language protects us from a comprehensive (or maximalist) claim about God. As Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335–395) notes, “the only name that signifies the divine nature is the wonder that arises ineffably in our souls concerning it” (C. Eun. 3.6.4). By using the word “wonder,” Gregory signals that no concept of God can be fully known, but only apprehended in wonder, in worship.
Peckham guards against comprehensive language through the concept of analogical temporality. Even so, placing God within the same temporal order appears to place God within the order of being. If that is the case, it is hard to see how God can remain on the Creator side of the Creator-creature distinction since being seems to be something given to that which comes into being; but God did not come into being but brought into being everything that has come into being (e.g., John 1:3).
I know Peckham does not intend to breach the Creator-creature distinction nor to give a maximalist approach. My critique is that he may imply what he does not intend through his affirmation of God’s existence within the temporal succession of things despite couching it in analogical language.
Skepticism about Tradition and Trinitarian Theology
Peckham objects to the idea that the Christian tradition or classical theism has a stable body of beliefs. Rather, he sees the church fathers as planting fertile ideas that have a diverse set of trajectories. At one level, I agree that the Christian tradition evinces all sorts of conclusions. And at times, theologians can make claims that may seem shocking or counter to expectations.
Origen of Alexandria (AD c. 184–c. 253) speaks of the suffering of God: “When he is prayed to, he has pity and compassion; he suffers something of love and comes into those in whom he cannot be, in view of the greatness of his nature, and on account of us he endures human sufferings” (Hom. Ezek. 6.6.3). Two things should be noted. First, the suffering here is precisely that of love; and second, note the qualification “he suffers something of love.”
By this incomprehensible act of love, God “in view of the greatness of his nature” somehow is able to “come into those” who pray to him. In context, it seems certain that Origen ties this to the Incarnation and God’s attribute of philanthropy (both of which he just spoke of, although he did not use the term philanthropy but the concept: “He came down to earth out of compassion for the human race”). The greatness of God’s nature (including impassibility) somehow exists alongside divine philanthropy in which God suffers “something of love.” Origen does not define the mystery but receives and delights in it.
Similar language of mystery and worship appears throughout the Fathers. Cyril of Alexandria (AD c. 376–444) can speak of God dying, even though he knows the divine nature cannot die. The Person of the Word, the only Person of Christ, dies according to his humanity. God dies, the Word dies according to his humanity. Even when such claims are made, neither Origen nor Cyril will deny the formal truths that God is impassible, even if Origen will say that God suffers something of philanthropia. Peckham might call this moderate classical theism. I would call it strong classical theism under the idiom of mystery, worship, and, as Gregory of Nyssa will emphasize, wonder.
We wonder to know. Now despite the diversity in conclusions, Lewis Ayres and Khaled Anatolios I think have shown a certain underlying common perspective, a basic set of convictions about God. And as the examples of Origen and Cyril show, representatives of the Christian tradition will press their case through the idiom of wonder and worship while still couching their claims within a relatively stable set of conceptions of God.
While some may dispute the details here, patristic scholars no longer dispute (anymore) the unified trinitarian approach of both East and West or the integration of triune persons into the divine nature with one power, will, and activity. Peckham in his strategy of probing the tradition to see diversity here oversteps the evidence as Lewis Ayres and others have, I think, shown. The older view that the Cappodocians held to a social trinitarian view no longer holds sway (240). And as a reader of the Cappodocians myself, I find myself agreeing with the scholarship of Michel Barnes, Khaled Anatolios, and Lewis Ayres on this matter.
Such a conclusion makes Peckham’s claim that “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each have a distinct faculty of reason, will, and self-consciousness” (253) evidently at odds with the pro-Nicene tradition. To cite one example, Anatolios has rightly distinguished pro-Nicene theology from non-Nicene theology under the categories of unity of will versus unity of being. Athanasius in his Contre Arianos and De Decretis defines the triune God in terms of unity of being—the simple nature of God. Since God is simple and since the Father and Son share the same essence, God is one.
The Arian or so-called semi-Arian arguments of Asterius and Eunomius pointed to the Son as the product of God’s will, not as being identical to God’s one nature, or simple essence. But Gregory of Nyssa, among others, pointed out the Father and Son share one Power, which power belongs solely to the one, true God. The Power of God is identical to God’s essence. Yet the Father and Son’s activity (energeia) operates according to one Power, showing oneness of divine nature. The nature of God then has one Power, Will, and the rest since it is one simple essence.
The modern attribution of social trinitarianism to the Cappadocians does not fit into this larger framework, and Nyssa’s view (and other pro-Nicene views) make it impossible to integrate into Peckham’s argument something like: “the “Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each have a distinct faculty of reason, will, and self-consciousness” (253). The faculties of reason, will, and self-consciousness are God’s single, simple nature. Peckham’s approach cannot integrate within this earlier tradition without massive adjustments.
Where the rubber hits the road is Christology. If the three Persons each have discrete faculties of reason, will, and self-consciousness, then such faculties belong to the concept of person rather than nature. But Christians affirm Christ is one Person in two natures. If Person names self-consciousness, reason, and will, then it follows that Christ took to himself a human nature devoid of such things since human nature and divine nature do not have them in their respective natures (but personally). But then Christ did not assume a genuine human nature or perhaps assumed another human person to again such faculties. Peckham will not affirm either of these options, of course. I am spelling out certain implications of his position.
Additionally, Peckham argues that God suffered at the cross. He thinks arguing for Christ dying according to his humanity amounts to human sacrifice (230, 242). Unlike pagan child sacrifice, he argues, “Christ (qua divinity) could choose for himself” to die for our sake (246). If Christ chooses as God, a distinct willing and centre of consciousness, then is there one or three gods? He will argue that Christ suffers in his person (246), but then why must Christ choose qua divinity and die as God and suffer as God according to his divine nature—especially if such a faculty (of willing) belongs to Person as his trinitarian position appears to warrant? Peckham knows his view might sound like tritheism to some (244). And yet if he wants to avoid such an accusation, I do not think he has done a sufficient job of explaining precisely how his position does not at least imply tritheism.
I confess to being confused at Peckham’s theo-logic at this point. But I—and others—affirm that God died because the single Person of Christ died. And Christ is a divine Person. This Person, Jesus or Word, is a single subject, and his two natures communicate their respective idioms—what belongs properly to each nature, human and divine—in his single Person. Hence, Peckham’s critique of dyophysite theo-logic falls short. The single Person suffers and dies according to the nature which can suffer and die, namely, that nature which is mortal. It is not mere human sacrifice or anything akin to pagan child sacrifice since the Word offers himself according to the one Will of God.
Perhaps this seems like wrangling over words. I am aware of that danger. Were I to simplify matters, perhaps I could make this argument. The Father and Son share the same definition of God—namely that of Creator (John 1:1–3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2; 1 Cor 8:6). If Father and Son are (is) the Creator, then they must share the same Power to create. If they have separate Powers, then God by nature is not Creator but only Creator when two centres of self-consciousness together agree by will to create. That does not make sense of the Shema nor the pattern of Scripture. Instead, Father and Son share one Power, the divine Power, which we call the divine nature Itself.
Peckham’s view also does not make sense, I’d argue, with the second book—the book of nature.
Scripture without Nature
The second article of the Belgic Confession (1561) declares that we know God by two means: the book of nature and the book of Scripture. The first book signifies general revelation in which we can know true things about God’s eternal nature and so on. The second book is more clear and alone sufficient unto salvation. This declaration of an alliance between natural and Scriptural theology amounts to a standard reformed and catholic understanding at least until the 20th century. It also repeats a general consensus of the validity of both books for theology that one can trace through the medievals and fathers. Scripture too encourages such a view (e.g., Ps 19:1)!
I suspect that Peckham’s canonical method of theology explains partly why he finds the following types of conclusions plausible:
- In the context of a theodicy of love, Peckham explains, “the voluntary suffering of God of the cross suffers most of all” (253).
- He also argues that God experiences “changing emotions in response to humans, though always perfectly in accord with his unchanging character” (51).
- “While God’s essential nature is changeless, the covenantal God of Scripture changes relationally because he voluntarily engages in back-and-forth (covenant) relationship with creatures while always remaining the same trinitarian God who was and is and is to come” (254)
- “I see no biblical warrant for the strict doctrine of divine simplicity” (241)
- “I see no biblical warrant for confidently interpreting monogeneēs or other language of Sonship as evidence for eternal generation. Likewise, I see no biblical warrant for the eternal procession of the Spirit” (237).
- Peckham criticizes Dolezal for not having a biblical warrant for arguing that “God cannot experience changing emotions” and wonders if this may impose something alien to Scripture upon it (57).
I will not belabour the point. But Scripture’s context is reality, that which is—visible and invisible. Since Peckham primarily reads the Bible without an importing an (sic) external context, then any definition of nature, person, the body, invisible realities, etc. are suspect unless explicitly defined by a Bible verse. But Scripture teaches us that nature teaches us grace. More could be said, but the point here is that reality is a context that Peckham seems to downplay (even though he surely brings in his assumptions about reality into the mix).
While attempting to verify his method within the tradition, Peckham will cite the likes of Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa (pp. 30–32) to indicate a norming quality of Scripture over theology. What he does not do is show how these two authors worked that out. In one of his citations, he cites Gregory of Nyssa’s work On the Soul and Resurrection. That work, for example, evinces a completely different way of approaching Scripture along with reality as a context. It does not do the work Peckham wants.
I have so much more I could say, but I will end the review in the following paragraphs. But first, I want to thank Dr. Peckham for helping me to think more closely about who God is and for challenging my assumptions about God. Given his rigorous Bible citation and the attempt to warrant God by Scripture’s own language, Peckham became a helpful conversation partner as I desire to theologize about the God whom I worship.
My critiques, though said more neutrally above, are real. I suspect a conversation between Peckham and I would go a long way to illuminating some of the confusion on my part. I think the confusion might go both ways, however, as Peckham does not engage deeply with patristic, medieval, early reformed, scholastic reformed, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox thinkers. At least if they were born before the 20th century.
And yet his project, I would argue, basically pushes back against these groups and their theological conclusions at least as classically conceived. I admit that some Eastern Orthodox theologians in the 20th century did talk about social trinitarianism. But that, as noted above, does not represent the patristic, Pro-nicene, medieval, or reformed theology of the past. That said, Peckham denies the stability of the tradition. And so perhaps this critique will not hit home for him or those sharing his views (e.g., McCall).
This lack of engagement may make sense given the scope of the book. But then again: he argues against the majority view of classical theism throughout. That he speaks of strict and moderate classical theism (254) or strict simplicity may show a gap in his knowledge because such views cannot really be graded along a scale. I grant that Dolezal’s presentation of simplicity is strict in its argument and application. But the heart of simplicity—God has no parts, passions, or possibility—remains stable throughout the tradition (I do not think Paul Gavrilyuk’s work contradicts this statement), even if there are various applications of the doctrine. And perhaps that is all that Peckham means. If so, then he would have to affirm something of a stable tradition when it comes to simplicity.
I will stop here since this review is long enough. To end on a positive note, I loved Peckham’s approach to the problem of evil at one specific point. Peckham argues for an epistemic conflict between the dark powers and God along the lines of Job 1–2. God can obviously win a power bout. The point is that God will vindicate his goodness against the slanderer. In the end, God is good—a bounty of goodness.
The publisher provided me with a review copy. Image from publisher’s website here.