Scott R. Swain

On Tradition

In the writings of his prophets and apostles, God has granted the church a wholesome word and a precious deposit (2 Timothy 1:13-14): which explains our past, opens up a future, and guides us on the path whereby we might inherit it.
One generation shall commend your works to another (Ps 145:4).
I’ve just finished two recent but very different books (here and here) on the nature of “tradition,” the church’s process of transmitting the faith once for all delivered to the saints from one generation to the next (1 Cor 15:3; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2; Jude 3). The following are some thoughts sparked and/or provoked by these books.
(1) Central to the task of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next is the requirement of transmitting it as a whole, without addition or subtraction. In my judgment, the modern project of “mediating theology” often failed precisely in this regard. In an effort to gain a wider and more receptive hearing for the faith among a modern audience, mediating theology distinguished between the kernel or essence of the faith, which was to be preserved, and the husk of the faith, which could be set aside. The problem with such a strategy is not simply that it threatens to compromise the integrity of the faith–Scripture calls us to proclaim all God’s wonderful works (Ps 105:2), not just the works that might be palatable in a given age. The problem is also that it robs a particular generation of the full resources of the faith for addressing humanity’s greatest problems and God-given potential. As Cyril of Jerusalem long ago observed, the Christian faith, by virtue of its “wholeness” or “catholicity” “teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly” and “universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.” Each generation thus requires “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:17).

The Greatest Prooftext for the Doctrine of Eternal Generation?

The reason Jesus acts the way he does, the reason Jesus is worthyof the worship he receives, is that Jesus’ origin is what it is: he is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, the heavenly Son of the heavenly Father, the only-begotten Son who is from above, not from below, whose filiation is not of this world.
The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is a central feature of orthodox Christian teaching. In this doctrine, the church confesses not simply that the second person of the Trinity is the one true and living God but how he is the one true and living God: as the Son eternally begotten by the Father who thereby shares the Father’s self-same being, attributes, works, and worship.
The church confesses the doctrine of eternal generation on the basis of Holy Scripture. But it is precisely at this point that many contemporary Christians–who may otherwise sympathize with the importance of sharing the church’s universal confession–nevertheless stumble. Is the doctrine of eternal generation really a biblical doctrine? Does it truly possess the only force it could possess to command the assent of the faithful, i.e., the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture?
There are plenty of reasons for answering this question in the affirmative. Some reasons follow from the ways Scripture “names” the second person of the Trinity. Other reasons follow from the ways Scripture portrays the second person of the Trinity in his actions of creating, saving, and consummating all things. Still, many contemporary Christians continue to find these lines of argument unconvincing. Part of the problem doubtless stems from the hermeneutical culture in which they were trained, which tends toward atomism in exegesis or, when it does consider larger canonical patterns of meaning, tends to focus on “horizontal” redemptive-historical patterns to the exclusion of “vertical” analogical patterns of meaning.
There is a place for criticizing these hermeneutical cultures and for repairing them as need be (the latter is, as a matter of fact, my full-time job). But it is the responsibility of the church’s teachers also to address church doctrine to its members within the hermeneutical space that they actually inhabit, not simply in the ideal space that teachers believe they should inhabit. That’s part of faithful shepherding: leading God’s people from where they actually are to where they should be.
Now to the (pretentious) title of my post: What is “the greatest prooftext for the doctrine of eternal generation”? I hope it is clear, gentle reader, that I am not insinuating that there is one great prooftext for the doctrine that stands above all others. The doctrine of eternal generation is the teaching of the whole counsel of God read as a whole. What my title means to suggest is that there may be one particularly instructive, particularly helpful prooftext for leading those sympathetic to but still unsure about the doctrine to the place of more confident affirmation. That text, I suggest, is John 8.
In John 8, Jesus roots his actions of revealing God’s words and accomplishing God’s saving purpose, the very actions that reveal Jesus’ identity as the one true and living God (Jn 8:24, 28: “that I am”), in his origin, his being “from above,” his being from “the Father” (Jn 8:23, 27). Jesus acts the way he does because of where (or better: whom) he is from. Moreover, it is precisely in contrasting the analogy between Jesus’ origin and actions and his opponents’ origin and actions that Jesus confirms the deep biblical logic of the doctrine of eternal generation.
Jesus introduces the link between action and origin in John 5, basing his authority to work on the Sabbath (a prerogative unique to God) in his status as God’s natural-born Son. As one who shares his Father’s nature, he also shares his Father’s self-existence, performs his Father’s works, and is worthy of receiving his Father’s worship (see here and here). Jesus takes up this theme again in John 8 and elaborates on it by contrasting his origin and action with his opponents’ origin and action. “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world” (Jn 8:23). “I speak what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father” (Jn 8:38).
Read More

The Logic of Revelation in the “Book of Signs” (John 1–12)

Written by Scott R. Swain |
Tuesday, March 8, 2022
In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us regarding the nature of heavenly things–in this case, the heavenly nature of his sonship–by speaking in terms of earthly things. He takes up language designed for speaking about things that are low and applies that language, with transformative significance, to things that are high. 

The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me (John 10:25).
John 1-12, the so-called “Book of Signs,” provides the Fourth Evangelist’s testimony regarding Jesus’ public ministry. According to John, the marvelous words and deeds that Jesus speaks and performs during his public ministry reveal the truth about his person. John 10:25 summarizes the revelatory logic at work in these chapters: “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me.” The works that Jesus performs bear witness about who he is.
The logic of revelation summarized in John 10:25 presupposes a specific concept of action, and an epistemological corollary, which I have summarized elsewhere. That concept of action is that certain kinds of agents produce certain kinds of effects. Fig trees produce figs. Grapevines produce grapes. And so forth (James 3:12). The epistemological corollary that follows from this concept of action is that “each tree is known by its fruit” (Luke 6:44). Certain kinds of effects reveal the presence of certain kinds of causes. Thus Jesus’ works, the wonderful life-giving signs that he performs, bear witness to who he is.
John’s claim that Jesus’ wonderful works are revelatory of Jesus’ identity is not a claim that their meaning is transparent. Indeed, even the most sympathetic observers of Jesus’ public ministry have a hard time grasping the significance of his transcendent identity merely by observing his transcendent actions. The riddle of Jesus’ identity is reflected in the questions his observers ask, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (Jn 7:31), and in the (from a Johannine perspective) less than fully informed declarations they make, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (Jn 3:2).
In John 10, Jesus’ opponents press him at this very point, demanding that Jesus resolve the riddle of his identity by telling them “plainly” whether he is “the Christ” (Jn 10:24; cf. 16:25: where revelation via “figures of speech” is contrasted with revelation that is “plain”). And though Jesus’ reply doesn’t evoke the response from Jesus’ opponents that John envisions for his ideal readers (but cf. Jn 10:42), Jesus’ answer is plain. The works that Jesus performs in his Father’s name manifest the truth about his filial identity: “I am the Son of God” (Jn 10:25, 36).
By this point in the Gospel, John has made it clear to his readers that Jesus is no mere earthly offspring of the heavenly Father (cf. Jn 1:12; 3:3, 5, 12). He is the heavenly Son of his heavenly Father (Jn 10:23, 27): the only-begotten Son of God who is above all because he was before all, who in the beginning was with God, who in the beginning was God (Jn 1:1, 14-15, 18, 30; 3:16, 31). John 10 confirms the transcendent nature of Jesus’ filial identity in the strongest way imaginable for a Jewish audience. Jesus is no mere teacher sent from God. Jesus is “one” with his Father, who is “greater than all” (Jn 10:29-30). The Father is “in” him and he is “in” the Father (John 10:38).
Read More

Trinitarian Personalism and Christian Preaching

Written by Scott R. Swain |
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
He, someone not something, is the supreme subject matter and scope of Christian preaching: God the Son incarnate, clothed with the promises of the gospel, crucified and risen, ascended and coming again.

The Trinity and Christian Preaching
Recent days have prompted me to think about the relationship between trinitarian theology and Christian preaching.
The first prompt came in June while participating in the International Presbyterian Church’s Catalyst Conference in London. Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to listen to a lot of good preaching, including three sermons from Sinclair Ferguson on the Pastoral Epistles. In the evenings, I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of IPC ministers and ministerial candidates, discussing the nature and calling of gospel preaching, as well as the current status of gospel preaching in the UK and North America. The second prompt came in July when I finished a short manuscript on the doctrine of the Trinity (which is to be published by Crossway next year). The third prompt came from research I am doing for other projects. The following are a few scattered thoughts on the relationship between trinitarian personalism and Christian preaching inspired by the confluence of these three prompts.
What Is Trinitarian Personalism?
“Personalism” is a term with specific philosophical connotations that I do not intend here. What I mean by “trinitarian personalism” follows from an insight, expressed by Thomas Aquinas in his disputation on divine power, that the term “person” is a term of dignity, which indicates two things about God’s supreme greatness and goodness.[1]
First, that God exists in three “persons” indicates that God’s manner of existing is the highest manner of existing. Specifically, the triune God is the living God; and the life he lives is a life of perfect intelligence, love, and beatitude. Second, that God exists in three “persons” indicates that God’s intelligent, loving, and blessed manner of existing subsists in three distinct, irreducible, unsubstitutable ways: as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The true and living God is the tripersonal God; and the life he lives is the life of the Father who begets, of the Son who is begotten, and of the Spirit who is breathed forth in their mutual love.
What does this rather fine metaphysical point have to do with Christian preaching? Stay with me.
Trinitarian Personalism in Patristic Exegesis
The Church Fathers display a kind of trinitarian personalism in the ways they read Holy Scripture. Three examples stand out.
The first example comes from Irenaeus of Lyon. In his dispute with Gnostic interpreters who so twisted Holy Scripture that its unified message became unrecognizable, Irenaeus argues that the main purpose of the “rule of faith” is to help readers identify the person of Jesus Christ as the handsome king to which all scriptures point. The scope or aim of Scripture, on this understanding, is not something but someone. Holy Scripture, in all its literary and historical diversity, is a book that holds forth before the eyes of faith God the Son, the handsome king.
The second example agrees with Irenaeus in seeing the persons of the Trinity as the central subject matter of Holy Scripture and (potentially) explains the origin of the term “person” in Christian theology. As Matthew Bates and others have recently argued, New Testament and early patristic interpretation of the Old Testament exhibits an ancient reading strategy known as “prosopological exegesis,” the practice of identifying otherwise unnamed or ambiguously identified characters (dramatis personae) within the drama of scriptural discourse. For example, the author of Hebrews identifies the king whom God addresses in Psalm 2:7 as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity (Heb 1:5). This “person-centered” approach to exegesis is the “birth” of trinitarian personalism: the scriptural foundation of the church’s perception of three “persons” in one God.[2]
Read More

Retrieving the “Royal Metaphor”: Reflections on Psalm 93

Written by Scott R. Swain |
Monday, October 11, 2021
Any attempt to retrieve classical Christian teaching about God must not only retrieve the scriptural foundations of such teaching. It must also retrieve the form that scriptural teaching takes, i.e., the glad tidings of the Lord’s reign (Isa 52:7).

Theology is discourse concerning God: God in his being, attributes, persons, and works; God and all things in relation to God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things (Rom 11:36). The principal subject matter of Christian theology has a proper name, “Yhwh,” which is the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). The fundamental claim of Christian theology regarding its principal subject matter is “Yhwh reigns.” This fundamental claim at once identifies God as king and describes the nature of his relation to all that is not God. Christian theology in its breadth and length and height and depth is one long commentary on the claim that the Lord reigns, a commentary designed to aid the church’s own varied expressions of this claim in prayer, proclamation, and praise.
Christian theology in the 20th century was not always eager to affirm God’s regal status. In many instances, in fact, Christian theology sought to deconstruct the claim that the Lord reigns. The deconstruction of the “royal metaphor” (what its critics called it) was central to the revision of “classical theism” (a label also invented by critics of traditional Christian teaching concerning God). Critics of this teaching offered a number of reasons for rejecting or redefining the royal metaphor. It was, they claimed, rooted in antiquated pre-modern approaches to biblical interpretation. It contradicted modern scientific understanding of the nature of the universe. It provided warrant for numerous forms of tyranny and oppression. This picture of the God-world relation, its critics argued, had held the church captive far too long. A Christian theology come of age and alert to the requisites of human flourishing needed to abandon the royal metaphor in favor of a more wholesome and humane conception of God. As a result of this critical judgment, the story of 20th century theology was, in large measure, the story of more or less revisionist proposals regarding the doctrine of God.
The purpose of the present article is not to address modern criticisms of traditional Christian teaching, at least not directly. I mention these criticisms only to observe that the critics were right about one thing: traditional Christian teaching about God is tied intrinsically to the royal metaphor, the claim that Yhwh, the triune God, reigns. Accordingly, any attempt to retrieve classical Christian teaching about God must not only retrieve the scriptural foundations of such teaching. It must also retrieve the form that scriptural teaching takes, i.e., the glad tidings of the Lord’s reign (Isa 52:7).
The central theme of Book Four of the Psalms (Psalms 90-106) is the kingship of Yhwh. These psalms are therefore an instructive place to begin in considering the scriptural portrayal of divine kingship. Psalm 93, the first instance of the claim, Yhwh mlk, “the Lord is king/the Lord reigns,” in Psalms 90-106, provides a helpful entryway into this portion of Scripture and this article of Christian teaching.
Psalm 93:1 opens with the announcement, “The Lord is king,” “The Lord reigns.” The psalm expounds the significance of this announcement in three phases. First, Psalm 93:1-2 grounds the enduring stability of the world in the divine king’s eternal being and transcendent power. Second, Psalm 93:3-4 considers creational sources of opposition to the Lord’s kingship–the mighty floods–only to conclude that creaturely opponents to God’s reign pose no ultimate threat. Third, Psalm 93:5 acclaims the enduring stability of God’s “testimonies” and God’s “house,” two central privileges enjoyed by the divine king’s covenant people.
(1) Ps 93:1-2. The first section of Psalm 93 begins with praise of the divine king’s transcendent power, drawing on the imagery of an Ancient Near Eastern king’s royal attire: the Lord “is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt” (Ps 93:1). The section concludes with praise of the divine king’s eternal being: “you are from everlasting” (Ps 93:2; cf. Pss 90:2, 4; 102:24-26). According to the middle frame of this section, the divine king’s eternal being and transcendent power are the source of the world’s enduring stability. Because God the eternal, almighty king reigns, “The world is established; it shall never be moved” (Ps 93:1). Moreover, the psalmist expresses further confidence that the world will stand secure in the future because God’s reign stands uncontested since the beginning of creation, when God established his throne in the heavens: “Your throne is established from of old” (Ps 93:2; cf. Pss 103:19; 104:3).
Read More

“Clothed with Splendor and Majesty”: Reflections on the Glory of the Divine King

Written by Scott R. Swain |
Saturday, September 25, 2021
We will behold God’s glory, not by means of his created, intermediary luminaries, but in the unveiled purity of God’s own transcendent light (Rev 21:23; 22:4-5). Those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, who are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit for a holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14), are being prepared for the conjugal vision of the divine king in his unmediated light. This is our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). 

Psalm 104 celebrates God’s work of creation. It begins with a description of God’s work in creating the heavens and their inhabitants (vv. 1-4). It then moves to an extended discussion of God’s work of creating the earth and its inhabitants, including human beings, who have a special vocation as co-laborers with God in producing the varied fruits that bring joy and satisfaction to the human family (vv. 5-24). The psalm then briefly discusses the sea and its inhabitants (vv. 25-26), concluding with a description of creation’s utter dependence on divine benefaction for its continued existence (vv. 27-30) and a prayer that God would be glorified in and pleased with his works forever and ever (vv. 31-35). What caught my eye today while studying this psalm was its description of heaven’s supreme inhabitant (cf. v. 3: “his chambers”) in verses 1-2: “You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment.” What is happening here?
Psalm 104 comes toward the end of Book Four of the Psalms, a section of the biblical canon devoted to theme of divine kingship: Yhwh mlk–“the Lord is king/the Lord reigns” (Pss 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1; cf. Pss 102:12; 103:19). These psalms proclaim the name of the Lord by means of a “royal metaphor,” describing God in terms common to human kingship. Drawing upon a broad field of images associated with Ancient Near Eastern kings, Scripture portrays God by means of royal appellations (e.g., king, shepherd, etc.), royal qualities (e.g., long life, strength, etc.), and royal trappings (e.g., throne, clothing, etc.) (see Marc Zvi Brettler, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor). The latter are especially relevant to grasping Psalm 104:1-2, which speaks of the divine king’s clothing.
The Bible is remarkably reticent in describing God’s appearance because, strictly speaking, God has no visible form or likeness (Deut 4:12, 15-19). Strictly speaking, the divine king is invisible (Rom 1:20; 1 Tim 1:17). Nevertheless, the Bible, on occasion, does describe God’s appearance in metaphorical terms. One thinks of Isaiah’s vision of the divine king in Isaiah 6, of Ezekiel’s vision of the divine likeness in Ezekiel 1, and of Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7. In each instance, Scripture describes God in terms of “royal trappings” (Brettler): as one seated on a throne, as one clothed in royal garb. Psalm 104:1-2 is an instance of this kind of metaphorical description.
According to Psalm 104:1-2, the Lord is “clothed” in splendor, majesty, and light. These “articles” of clothing emphasize the divine king’s transcendent glory, the awesome, awe-inspiring nature of his divine being, rule, and worth. In order to appreciate more fully the significance of God’s radiant royal attire, we must further consider Scripture’s broader association of divine glory with created and uncreated light. We must follow Scripture as it leads us up the ladder of heavenly lights to their divine luminous source (James 1:17).
We begin with the lowest heavens, which are the visible heavens that you and I perceive anytime we walk outside. Psalm 19 tells us that the visible heavens are in the business of proclaiming “the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). Though they have no words to speak (Ps 19:3), the regular cycle of the sun and the moon in their daily and nightly rotations declares the divine king’s faithfulness. The universal scope of the sun’s illuminating power declares the divine king’s universal sovereignty (Ps 19:2, 4-6). The sheer joy that the sun exhibits in running its divinely ordained course proclaims the divine king’s goodness (Ps 19:5). Without words, these visible lights serve as royal ambassadors, announcing the invisible glory of the divine king (Rom 1:20).
Read More

Scroll to top
Refcast

FREE
VIEW