Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: God With Us

God With Us: Divine Condescension And the Attributes of God. K. Scott Oliphint. 2011. Crossway. 303 pages.

To clarify, this isn't a proper review of God With Us. I cannot judge--cannot judge fairly or well--the theology of a book that I can't begin to comprehend. The theology of this book could be perfectly, completely sound. That is it could contain biblically sound doctrine; it could contain truth-treasures within its pages. So I hesitate to say that this is a 'bad book' especially since if you label a Christian book a 'bad book' most people would assume, perhaps naturally assume, that you're critiquing the doctrine of a book, the theological merits of a book. Making a statement that this book goes against the Word of God. That isn't the case here. That is not my argument or position.

Honestly, I wish the author had condescended more in his writing. For it is my opinion that this book is too challenging to be a practical recommendation. There are different ways a book can be challenging. The subject could just be WAY, WAY, WAY over someone's understanding or comprehending. In that it doesn't matter HOW it's presented. Or it could be written in such a way--presented in such a way-- that it's difficult to understand, difficult to follow. In the case of GOD WITH US, I felt it was MADE too difficult. That the author further complicated the subject matter. That instead of making it easier to understand, instead of reaching out to you and me--the average Christian without professional theological training--he chose to talk to a select few.

God With Us is an intimidating book. For starters, it uses Latin a little too casually. It sprinkles in foreign words--I'm assuming Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Though I only am certain on the Hebrew and Latin--a little too often. In that if you don't understand these words, these ideas or concepts, you've lost the flow of the argument all together. It's not a simple matter of, well, I don't understand that sentence OR that paragraph, but I'll start on the next one and see if I can pick up what it all means by context. It isn't a matter of guessing what a word means and continuing on with the book. For it requires too much pretending, too much guessing, to work. For there are just too many unknown words in each sentence, each paragraph, each page. (For example, for every ten pages of text, I might clearly grasp eight or nine sentences.)

The book is about the attributes of God.  This wasn't my first attempt to read on the subject. In fact,  this is one of my favorite areas to read about--the character of God, the attributes of God, the  names of God, etc. I've read books by J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and John MacArthur--to name a few--on the subject of God. And I've benefited by this study. I do believe the proper study for mankind is God--not man. But I think this book, God With Us, is overly complicated.

I think one reason it is overly complicated is because it is trying to do too much. It isn't trying to be a book. It is too clever to be just a book. It wants to be a text book, I think. On every single page--at least it felt like it was each and every page--Oliphint drops names, uses quotes, introduces new ideas, and makes arguments. Sometimes he's quoting people he disagrees with, sometimes he's quoting people he agrees with. Sometimes he becomes so focuses in presenting different viewpoints--perhaps to stress that his is the correct viewpoint?--that it becomes almost impossible to see what really matters. When a reader can't easily see which points are the main ideas. When the book becomes a maze of philosophical and theological ideas sprinkled with sentences that are comprehensible, it becomes a mess.

The introduction has seventy-nine footnotes.
Chapter one has eighty-four footnotes.
Chapter two has 103 footnotes.
Chapter three has eighty-five footnotes.
Chapter four has a mere seventy-six footnotes.
Chapter five has 121 footnotes.

Maybe if you're in the field and are familiar with even a fourth of the names he's mentioning, familiar with who they are, their theological position, their associations, etc., then perhaps the argument might make sense to you. Especially if you've had classes on logic and rhetoric. Or even debate.

I can easily say that I found it easier to read Stephen Charnock's The Existence and Attributes of God, a book first published in 1682. I expected a language barrier--of sorts--when I read it. But with work and patience and pen (for taking notes) I was able to benefit from reading it.

I was disappointed with God With Us. I wanted an intelligent book, true, but intelligent and comprehensible. I wanted a straightforward book that presented basic, essential truths about God, about Jesus. I wanted to find a challenging book that would help me think more, appreciate more. I wanted a book with substance, I appreciate books with substance. I wanted a book to help me celebrate Christ, to rejoice in Him and His works. I wanted a book as rich and deep as some of the other books Crossway has published in the past.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible


Annette said...

Oh my goodness, I too am reading a handful of a theology read.
In brief the book I'm reading is theologians discussing a critical review of another theologians book about the errancy of the early NT manuscripts that he believes were arrogantly changed by the early church. Whew. It is interesting, but not a book most people would be interested in reading. Of course I would be reading this during the busiest time of the year. There were a couple of other books I wanted to finish, but trying to finish this heavy heavy book first, book tour is next week!
Merry Christmas!

Paul said...


Thanks for your thoughts. A couple point of clarification on behalf of Dr. Oliphint that might provide the opportunity for a more charitable reading.

(1) The book is not on the attributes of God per se. It is on the doctrine of divine condescension, and how to think about the attributes of God in light of a proper understanding of how the unchanging God relates to a changing world. There actually is no book, to my knowledge, that posits what Dr. Oliphint does regarding covenantal properties; therefore, it seems appropriate for him to speak into the academic world, and I think that to expect an author to speak with academic eloquence and immediate comprehensibility to the lay reader at all times at every point is not a realistic expectation as a reader (especially of theology).

(2) Calling the book "a maze of philosophical and theological ideas sprinkled with sentences that are comprehensible" might not be the fairest representation of a book that doesn't give you more than a few pages without providing another anchor in his outline, reminding you where you are in the argument. As you read, you always know you're either in Chapter 1, Chapter 1B, Chapter 1B(1), etc. so that you can always trace back what he's talking about to the larger idea he is communicating.

(3) I don't think courses in logic or rhetoric would help someone understand this book - however, the reason Oliphint quotes Turretin, Bavinck, Muller, and the rest (the authors in Time and Eternity) is to fairly and clearly present their views so that he does not allow room for caricatures.

Again, thanks for your thoughts and your perseverance through a book of admittedly dense material!