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Christian Doctrine 5

THE ATONEMENT IN SCRIPTURE AND HISTORY

Theological Essay:

Question 1

Lecturer:
Dr. R.C. Doyle

Student:
2014010

June 2018

Word count:
3600
Introduction

To ask the question: “in what sense does the cross represent something genuinely
new for God” is to touch upon the doctrine of God. It’s to run the tracks that consider the
sovereignty, freedom and knowledge of God of all times, places, creatures, and events. In
theological currency the questioned is concerned with God’s immutability, and therefore the
other attributes of simplicity, eternity and impassibility are implicated. This is the case
because the doctrine of God is not an assortment of distinct and separable attributes, rather “a
tapestry with a number of interconnected threads” (Vanhoozer, 2010:391). For example to
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ask a question of God’s immutability is to inquire regarding God’s eternity, God’s
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impassibility and God’s simplicity. To inquiry about God’s unchangableness is to ask about
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his Divine Freedom and his love. To pull on one thread could be to unravel the entire jersey.
Furthermore, to ask about the cross is to ask about Jesus Christ and his sufferings in relation
to God. Therefore, in answering the central question I will delimit my inquiry to immutability
and impassibility in relation to the cross.

Christians are said to “worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither
confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence.” The Westminster Catechism states:
“God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being” (Q.4.A.). Nicean orthodoxy
established that Jesus is homoousion with the Father, ‘God of God, light of light’ ‘being one
substance with the Father’ he “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit” … ‘he suffered and was
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crucified, died and rose again.’ Chalcedon clarified that Jesus Christ was “to be
acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the
distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of
each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence
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(hypostasis).”

Christians have either affirmed one aspect to the detriment of another in these
orthodoxy affirmations, in order to articulate a cogent explanation of how the suffering cross
of Christ, relates to the eternal, unchanging Triune God. Therefore, to place a distinguishing
marker from the start, two polarising positions must be avoided. Therefore, I will seek to

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Paul Helm subsumes immutability within God’s eternity (1988:90).
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Weinandy highlights how immutability can be located within God’s simplicity (2000:124).
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Torrance discusses God’s immutability within God’s Sovereign freedom and divine love (1996:238).
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The council of Nicea (AD.325 &1967:25).
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The council of Chalcedon (AD. 451), (New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic, 2016)

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affirm and delineate that God is the ‘Self Moved’ God in relation to the cross. I deny God as
the ‘Unmoved Mover’ characterised by Aristotelian scholastic theology [section I] or the
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‘Moved Unmover’ of panentheistic theology [section II]. These two positions will be
conversation partners in answering the central question.

Section I: The Cross-Represents Nothing New for the ‘Unmoved Mover’


The medieval doctrine of actus purus was the scholastic equivalent of Aristotle’s
teaching that God is pure actuality. Nash states “Basic to the philosophy of Aristotle and his
medieval followers was the belief that everything that exists is a combination of form and
matter. Everything possesses both actuality and potentiality” (Nash, 1983:20). Aquinas
applies this to God so that any potentiality in God’s being would detract from his perfection
(Nash, 1983:20). Thus in this tradition, it means that there is no potentialities in God. The
starting point for the Thomist is the conviction that if God truly is God, there can be no
greater. God must in other words be perfect (ibid, 99-100). But a perfect being must be
incapable of change. After all, change must either before the better or the worse. God cannot
change. If God changes he improves on perfection. If it’s for the worse it results in Him
becoming less than perfect. Therefore, God does not change. (ibid, 99-100). Charnock states,
He is entirely the same. He wants nothing, loses nothing, but doth uniformly exist by himself,
without any new nature, new thought, new will, new purpose, or new place” (1953:194).
This conception can represent an inertial Deity or God who does not personally intervene in
our mutable world of space and time.

Therefore the cross represents nothing new for God. God cannot act in a way that
would impinge upon his impassibility and immutability. Therefore God could not participate
in human suffering at the cross, without ceasing to be what he is. Gavrilyuk adds, “to admit
this would be to abrogate the fundamental division between creator and creature” (2004:143).
Thus it is posited that at the cross Jesus suffered in his human nature alone, which in various
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ways runs notoriously close to Nestorianism, which separates the two natures of Christ. In
avoiding this position let me propose a methodology to undergird our theological inquiry.

T.F. Torrance calls this scholastic method espoused by Aquinas as “dualistic” a “split
concept of God” that separates the idea of the one essence of God, from the three Persons in

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The term ‘self-moved God’ is from T.F. Torrance, (1996:239).
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The term ‘Moved Unmover’ is an expression from Colin Gunton in describing Whiteheadean process
theology (2002:71-72).
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To be careful, not all positions in this tradition end up in the same place regarding the cross.

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God, without seeking to relate “any intrinsic relationship” (1992:99-100). Rather drawing on
the New Testament witness, Torrance asserts that in ‘Immanuel had come,’ ‘God with us’ and
that it as the incarnate Word he “exegetes” the Father (ibid, 101 & John 1:1-18). Furthermore,
Jesus declared, “if you have seen me you have seen the Father” moreover, “I am the way the
truth and the Life” through and whom alone access to God the Father is available (Jn. 10:6-9).
That is to say, “as the incarnate Word and Truth of God Jesus Christ in his own personal
Being is identical with the Revelation which he mediates” (Torrance, 1992:9). Torrance
states, “God is who he is in his Word of self-communication to us. God comes to us clothed
with his revelation, for God and his revelation is indivisibly one. The Word of God is God,
and God is his Word.” (1992:5). Athanasius placed a significant emphasis on Jesus the Word
of God:

“He gives them a share in His own Image, our Lord Jesus Christ, and makes them
after His own Image and after His likeness: so that by such grace perceiving the
Image, that is, the Word of the Father, they may be able through Him to get an idea of
the Father, and knowing their Maker, live the happy and truly blessed life” (On the
Incarnation, 11.1-3).

In contrast the scholastics spoke of the via negationis by which they in thought
eliminated from God the imperfections of the creature. Our words are simply incapable of
speaking of the creator. Gunton states, “That is the truth underlying what is known as the
negative theology: what God can best be characterized by thinking away the limitations
inherent in words designed –to speak of created things” (2002:36). This methodology claims
to know what God is before a consideration of Christology. Thus the content of Christology
will be made to conform to a prior understanding of God.

Not so, the posture and approach to the knowledge of God is through the Son–“the
one true mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Calvin is
informative,

“ . . . It means that, because he chose for himself virgin's womb as a temple in which
to dwell, he who was the Son of God became the Son of man-not by confusion of
substance, but by unity of person. For we affirm his divinity so joined and united with
his humanity that each retains its distinctive nature unimpaired, and yet these two
natures constitute one Christ” (Institutes, 2.14.1).
In this context Calvin is drawing on the Chalcedon distinctions that help safeguard-
attributing actions to specific natures, rather in accordance with biblical testimony we meet

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one person Jesus Christ that reveals the Father, and dies on the cross. Calvin’s distinctive
employment of the threefold office of Christ, as prophet, priest and king encompassed under
the undivided mediator meant that when the author of Hebrews (1:1-2) states: “in times past
God spoke to our father by the prophets, but now in these last days he has spoken to us by his
Son” it underscores that “the fullness and culmination of all revelations was at hand” so that
“outside Christ there is nothing worth knowing” (Institutes, 2.15.1-2).

In addition, Apostle Paul’s statement, “They would not have crucified the Lord of
Glory” is in agreement that there is one mediator of revelation and reconciliation (1 Cor. 2:8).
This is evident because Paul in 1 Cor. 2:8 is attributing crucifixion not to a human Jesus
considered apart from the Word, but to the Lord of Glory himself. The total incarnate
mediator– Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human [double homoousion] “became a curse for
us” Gal. 3.13. Thus the sufferings of the cross and the atonement of the cross take place
within “the incarnate constitution of the Mediator who is God and man in one person”
(Torrance, 1995:185).

In this section my aim has been to articulate the importance of thinking about the
significance of the cross in relation to God must be done from God’s self revelation, the Word
and Image of God our one and true mediator Jesus Christ. Otherwise, as Gunton states,
“sometimes a metaphysic of being seems to have so predetermined the shape of theology of
the attributes that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to attribute to God forms of action
without which the gospel ceases to be the gospel” (2002:23). This has been the critique of the
advocates of the ‘Moved Mover’ discussed below, to which we will now turn.

Section II: The Cross-Represents Something Constitutively New for the ‘Moved Mover’
“What has Jerusalem to do with Athens,” asked Tertullian in pointed memorable
words: “I have no use for a Stoic or a Platonic or a dialectic [Aristotelian] Christianity”
(Prescriptions Against Heretics, 7). The God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob. In many ways Tertullian’s question has been echoed and restated against
classical theistic God of the Western, Augustinian heritage. The accusation centres on the
inappropriate use of Greek metaphysical philosophy in delineating the biblical presentation of
God. Process theologian, John Whitehead concluded, “the church gave unto God the
attributes which belongs to Caesar” (cited by Weinandy, 2000:23). Jürgen Moltmann
expresses it relationally positing, “the God of theism is poor. He cannot love nor can he
suffer” (1974:253). Within modern Evangelical circles, a proponent of open theism or termed
the ‘new orthodoxy’ expresses the sentiment in a chapter entitled “Overcoming a Pagan
Inheritance.” Clark Pinnock states, “Conventional theism is traditional in a way, but has to

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explain its indebtness to classical culture. It needs to deal with the legacy of pagan influence
that is present in it” (2001:109). The God of classical theism as an Unmoved Mover, while
enjoying his own perfect fullness of being, is distant from the world, unaffected by the
happening of history, unrelated to Christian life (Pinnock, 2001:109). Critics highlight this
God of perennial Hellenistic Philosophy is far removed from the dynamic, narrative, life-
related discourse of the Bible especially the Old Testament. The contemporary challengers to
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the classical theism are broad and nuanced. For the purpose of this essay I will focus on
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Jürgen Moltmann.

Jürgen Moltmann’s Panentheism


Moltmann addresses the research question when he asks “What does the cross of Jesus mean
for God Himself?” (1974:201). Faced with theodicy post Auschwitz meant the traditional
doctrine of impassibility and immutability are untenable if we affirm the truth of 1 John 4:6
that God is love (ibid, 247). To love is to suffer, because a God incapable of suffering is
incapable of loving. Moltmann states,

“A god who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of
suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice cannot affect
him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be shaken or moved by
anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot
love either. So he is a loveless being” (1974:222).

Therefore, at its deepest level the cross of Christ reveals that “God's being is in
suffering, and suffering is in God's being itself, because God is love” (ibid, 227). For
Moltmann, “The Son suffers in his love being forsaken by the Father as he dies. The Father
suffers in his love the grief of the death of the Son” (1974:255).

Moltmann’s Methodology
Moltmann insists that the “crucified God cannot be fully perceived” until our
theological first beginnings lie not in the doctrine of the Trinity but the divine act of the cross
(1974:241). Unlike classical theism that begins with the attributes of God, Moltmann

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It is beyond the purview of this study to investigate this accusation against classical theism. However,
for clarity, the ‘unmoved mover’ of the section above is not to be equated directly with classical theism
per se. For a detailed response to such claims see: (Weinandy, 2000) and (Gavrilyuk, 2004).
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My rational for focusing on Moltmann is that he is the set reading of this course. Therefore,
Pinnock’s Open Theism and Whiteheadan Process Theology is not discussed directly.

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epistemological starting point is “to understand the doctrine of the Trinity in light of the
theology of the cross” (1981:160). Therefore the central foundational knowledge of the
Triune God is the cross. Positively, Moltmann underscores that the whole Trinity is
implicated in the cross of Christ. Exactly because Christ’s suffering was the suffering of his
indivisible divine-human Person, the eternal life and being of the Lord God is indeed touched
by the suffering and death of Jesus. Therefore, the cross is something genuinely new for God
because the cross is the death “in” God as opposed to the death “of” God (Vanhoozer,
2010:193). In Moltmann’s words,

“What happened on the cross is an event between God and God. It was a deep
division in God himself, and at the same time a unity in God. In so far as God was at
one with God and corresponded to Himself” (1981:161).

Christ’s incarnation and death appear to be for Moltmann, “a symbol of God’s eternal
being in becoming rather a decision of merciful love” (Horton, 2010:245). Not surprisingly,
for Moltmann,

“The incarnation of God’s son is not an answer to sin. It is the fulfilment of God’s
eternal longing to become man and to make of every man a god out of grace; an
‘Other’ to participate in the divine life and return the divine love” (1981:46).

Cooper points out that this dialectical division and reconciliation within God is how
“the persons of the Trinity become who they are” (2006:241). The cross is a constitution of
the triune mutual suffering love. Thus for Moltmann the Trinity is actualised at the cross, it
defines God’s nature as suffering love that takes the whole of created history into itself.
Triune suffering is characteristic element of God’s being because God is love, and to love is
to suffer in solidarity. Moltmann describes his theology of the cross as a “dialectical
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panentheism” (1974:277). One scholar defines it as such: “panentheism affirms although
God and the world are ontologically distinct, God transcends the world, the world is ‘in’ God
ontologically” (Cooper, 2006:18).

Positive Appropriation of Moltmann’s Position


Within the context of Nicene Trinitarian formulations, Augustine posited the
theological axiom, “ . . .although just as Father and Son and Holy Spirit are inseparable, so

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See Trinity and the Kingdom of God, (1981:106-108).

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they work inseparably” (In chapter 2.4.7, of De Trinitate). Therefore, with Moltmann, at
the cross, God was crucified. Torrance explains “what Christ felt, did and suffered in himself
in his body and soul for our forgiveness was felt, done, and suffered by God in his innermost
Being for our sake” (1996:249). Torrance explains, “the Unqualified Deity [homoousion] of
Christ means that in his incarnate life as the One mediator between God and man falls within
the life of God, and that his passion belongs to the very being of God, and thus of God the
Father and God the Spirit as well as God the Son” (1996:246-247). Therefore, with the
incarnation, where the Creator becomes a creature, where “The Word became flesh” (Jn.
1:14) the incarnation was a new event for God (God was not always incarnate). Likewise at
the cross, God who was free to become like one of us without ceasing to be God, is free to
“enter into the depths of our misery and alienation, while remaining he who he always is
merely as the mighty living God” (1996:239). Consequently, one must avoid attributing
suffering to Christ’s humanity as to divide the person, equally one must avoid
patripassianism, “a theological position which fails to distinguish between God the Father and
God the Son and therefore holds that in the suffering of Jesus God simpliciter, and not God
the Son, was involved” (Sarot, 1990:375). In agreement with Moltmann, it is the Son that
suffers and dies on the cross, but the Father suffers too albeit with him, but not in the same
way as the Son.

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Therefore, like the incarnation, the cross is something genuinely new for God as the
incarnate Son suffers in our place and on our behalf and the Father suffers the pain of giving
up the Beloved Son, his only beloved Son.

However, the point of departure from Moltmann is expressed by Athanasius, “one


cannot say that these things are natural to the Godhead, but they came to belong to God by
nature” (Contra Apollinarem, 1.5. cited by Torrance, 1996:248). For Moltmann (as noted
above), the suffering of the cross constitutes God ontologically and is essential to who God is
(Bauckham, 1995:109). The difficulty with this view is that it ties God to his relationship to
the world and makes the world a contributory factor to the ultimate nature of God. This has
the effect of blurring the distinction between God and the world and leads to the idea of
mutual perichoresis between God and the world, eternity and time (Vanhoozer, 2010:153).
Moltmann’s view, ‘perichoresetic panentheism’ stems from collapsing the economic and

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“opera Trinitas ad extra sunt indivisa”

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Torrance notes “the incarnation of the Son as falling within the being and life of God” therefore it is
something genuinely new for God (1995:155).

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immanent trinity. Therefore, the cross “determines the inner life of the triune God from
eternity to eternity too” (Moltmann, 1981:161). Beginning at the cross, the economic Trinity
is raised into and transcended in the immanent Trinity as everything moves eschatologically
towards it being “in God” and “God is all in all” (ibid, 161).

Weaknesses in Moltmann’s Panentheism


Firstly, as noted in section above Jesus Christ the mediator is the revelation and
reconciliation of the God-Head (i.e. Trinity) to humanity. Therefore, we must allow the
person of Christ to determine for us the nature of His saving work, rather than the other way
round. Moltmann clearly begins his Trinitarian theology from experience: “God suffers with
us– God suffers from us– God suffers for us: it is this experience of God that reveals the
triune God” (1981:4). Furthermore, critics of classical theism have often exchanged one
philosophical backdrop for another. For Moltmann, this is the case– he openly adapts Hegel‘s
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dialectic (ibid, 3).

Secondly, the biblical testimony is that God’s condescension, obedient stead, and
suffering on the cross has a redemptive-soteriological perspective. The active suffering of
God is actually a vicarious suffering ‘in our place’ and ‘on our behalf.’ Jesus said he came “to
give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45; Gal. 3:13). Vicarious suffering of the cross is
shaped and driven towards a teleological goal, namely reconciliation with its primary benefit
of sonship: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he
might bring us to God” (1 Peter. 3:18 c/f Gal. 4:4). Thus Calvin drawing on 2 Cor. 8:9 states,
“Who would have done this had not the self-same Son of God become the Son of man, and
had not so taken what was ours as to impart what was his to us, and to make what was his by
nature ours by grace” (Institutes, 2.12.2). The tendency to ascribe suffering to the fabric and
being of the God-head is motivated to show solidarity with humanity; but God suffers to win
victory, save sinners and overcome death, not to manifest God’s eternal suffering and in that
way identify with creatures.
Thirdly, the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity preserves divine
freedom. “God is from himself and from himself God gives himself” (Webster, 2008:114).

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Moltmann affirms Rahner’s thesis that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice
versa” (Trinity, 160). We cannot conceive of the immanent and economic trinity in a way that the first
nullifies the second. “The two rather form a continuity and merge into one another” (ibid, 152).
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It has not been within the scope of this essay but God’s gracious accommodation to our culture and
language must be considered. God speaks and acts in ways appropriate, to the people He is dealing
with. It is a fictitious claim that our epistemological grid and starting point is neutral.

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In a similar vein, Torrance argues that God in his own inner life and being, as eternal
faithfulness and eternal love is immutable (1996:221). But, with regard to his external
relations as seen in the incarnation and the cross, Torrance argues that “out of his sovereign
ontological freedom God chooses to be other than he eternally was, and is, and to do what he
had never done before” (1996:108). For example God was always Father in his relation to the
Son, but was not always Creator. God was not always incarnate but He was always God the
Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Again, Torrance states, “In his transcendent
freedom he became man, one with us in our contingent mutable existence, without ceasing to
be what he eternally was and is and ever will be in himself” (1996:238). Therefore, within the
soteriological framework: “God is immutably free and able to become what he needs to
become in order to save the world” (Macleod, 1998:186).

To conclude, The cross is not something new for God in the panentheistic sense.
Although God is free to change in his experiences, and actions nevertheless he is immutable
and unchanging in his essence (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17) that is eternal forever abiding in
blessedness and in his character (Rom 11:29; Heb. 6:13-18). Grounded in the unchanging
ontological essence God is faithful to his covenantal promises. This is affirmed over and over
in scripture: “The Word of the Lord is upright; all his work is done in his faithfulness” (Ps
33:4). “God is faithful” 1 Cor 1:9); “ He who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23).

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Works Cited
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Bauckham, R., 1995. The Theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Bettenson, H., 1967. Documents of the Early Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Pinnock, C., 2001. The Most Moved Mover. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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Webster, J., 2008. 'Life in and of Himself: Reflections On God's Aseity'. In B.L. McCormack,
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Weinandy, T.G., 2000. Does God Suffer? Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

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Barth, B., 2009. Church Dogmatics. Vol. II Book 1: The Doctrine of God. London: T & T
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Doyle, R.C. 1999. Eschatology and the shape of Christian belief. Paternoster Press, Carlisle.

Frame, J. M., 2013. Systematic theology: an introduction to Christian belief. Phillipsburg,


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