Monday, 26 January 2009

God does not magnify himself: on Thomas Schreiner and Jonathan Edwards

Michael Jensen mentions Thomas Schreiner’s recent New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Baker, 2008). Michael is right to be troubled by this interpretation of the New Testament: “Schreiner wants to argue that the anchoring theme of NT Theology is something like: God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. That is, God’s concern for God’s own glory is the driving heartbeat of the NT witness and mission. God’s self-referencing self-regard is what perpetuates his plans and his interaction with his creatures.”

I had a similar complaint when I recently read a friend’s essay on Calvin’s doctrine of God: Calvin was not an Edwardsean! This whole business of “God magnifying himself” or of God redeeming the world “for the sake of God’s own glory” is really pretty perverse.

Personally, I’ve read Jonathan Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World a number of times, and I think it’s an amazing achievement of speculative philosophical theology. (I haven’t read any John Piper, but I’ve heard that he popularises the same argument.) At one point in my life, I was persuaded by Edwards’ argument: its logic is so tight and so compelling; its vision of an always-self-glorifying God seemed so charged with religious awe and solemn Calvinist reverence. It was only as I was reading the Fourth Gospel one day that it occurred to me that Edwards had made one small mistake: he had forgotten to include “Jesus Christ” in his definition of God. And of course this one mistake invalidates the whole elaborate procedure: if a doctrine of God is wrong here, it’s wrong everywhere.

According to the Fourth Gospel, the divine “glory” is manifest in Christ’s cross. This presents a very different picture of what it means for God to “glorify himself”: God does not “magnify himself” (literally “make himself bigger”, from the Latin magnus); rather he humiliates himself and makes himself smaller. God’s glory travels a path of abasement and lowly self-giving. God’s glory, in other words, cannot be understood apart from God’s humanity – the eternal decision in which he becomes God-for-us in Jesus Christ.

An Edwarsean interpretation of the New Testament, then – in which God’s interactions with humanity always serve the higher aim of God’s self-magnification – can only be said to represent a stunning theological misreading of the New Testament witness. It’s one of those rare instances in which you wish a biblical scholar had read a little less theology.

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