Calvin on the evils of Roman Catholic worship and the remedy for the idolatry of having images in worship. He writes,
But, besides the clear testimonies which are everywhere met with in Scripture, we are also supported by the authority of the ancient Church. All the writers of a purer age describe the abuse of images among the Gentiles as not differing from what is seen in the world in the present day; and their observations on the subject are not less applicable to the present age than to the persons whom they then censured.
** Taken from Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, 29.
Imagine if modern day Arminianism considered Calvin(ism) as Jacobus Arminius did;
Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551–1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison (incomparabilem esse) in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy (spiritum aliquem prophetiae eximium). His Institutes ought to be studied after the [Heidelberg] Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination (cum delectu), like the writings of all men.
** Taken from James Arminius (1560–1609) in Schaft – History of the Christian Church Vol. VIII Chapter VIII
By the Lord’s grace and due to the labors of several individuals, the Puritan Studies Program website is up and running. Please check it out and pass along the word to others especially anyone who might be interested in these post-graduate programs. Most importantly, please pray that these studies would be used for the extension of Christ’s kingdom. If you are interested in these studies, please feel to contact Bob McKelvey.
We should not pit this legal analogy for the human story against the relational, which is just as important; both are integral to a covenantal account. The Holy Spirit is the divine witness, who pronounces God’s blessing on creation and makes us true witnesses to God and his works. But there is a false witness, Satan, who in the garden first misinterprets God’s Word and then denies it (Gen. 3:1–5). He succeeds in getting Adam and Eve to doubt God’s Word and attempt to go behind it to discover something hidden about God himself. In this way, we submitted God and his ways to our sovereign judgment. God, however, arrived in the garden in true and righteous judgment, and the ensuing covenant trial, with its curses and promises, is echoed in every subplot of the Bible. And Adam’s new role as covenant transgressor and false witness bears on his relation to all humanity and the rest of creation as well as to God.
As the representative head of humanity, Adam stood in total personal righteousness, in loving fellowship with God, and with the Sabbath held out to him. After the fall, we retain a natural nostalgia for God (which we twist into idolatry) as well as a yearning to attain the consummation (twisted into self-will and oppression). In short, the human race in Adam is now the false prophet who misrepresents God’s Word, the false priest who corrupts God’s sanctuary, and the false king who exercises cruel tyranny.
Every person is now born estranged from the good Father; unwilling to be a faithful son, humanity became a slave of sin and death. The features of a covenant are clearly delineated in Genesis 1–3: a historical prologue (chaps. 1–2), stipulations (2:16–17), sanctions (2:17, over which Eve and Satan argue, 3:1–5), and judgment for transgression (3:8–19). The Tree of Life was the prize waiting for faithfulness, securing participation in God’s own Sabbath rest. Further, the terms that form the basis of an entirely new covenantal state of affairs are announced in Genesis 3:21–24. Adam’s covenantal role entailed his representation of all humanity and all creation (Gen. 3:17–18; Rom. 5:12–21; 8:20). This original covenant of creation may be defended by appeal to non-Christian as well as Christian sources. Even ancient pagan cultures grounded their laws in a narrative of original creation that was universally normative. Judaism grounds human moral solidarity in an original creational covenant with Adam. Islam affirms certain laws that are binding on all people because of a common Adamic origin. Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our own conscience—all testify to an indelible conviction of moral accountability before a holy God for how we treat each other.
The Christian notion of a creational covenant did not arise because of a Western emphasis on legal categories; Irenaeus and John of Damascus in the East affirm an Adamic covenant, as Augustine did in the West. The beginnings of developed Reformed covenant or federal theology can easily be seen among the Reformers. All of these advocates of a creational covenant with Adam appealed to its biblical basis, not only the obvious covenantal elements in Genesis and the strong parallels between Adam and Christ but also specific passages that refer to Adam’s covenant-breaking (e.g., Hos. 6:7; Job 31:33). Israel’s national existence is in many ways a recapitulation of the creational covenant of the law of love for God and neighbor and is also crucial to understanding the biblical testimony to this covenant of works (and its distinction from the new covenant of grace, e.g., Galatians 3–4).
The creational covenant is rooted in law and love, not in grace. Again, grace presupposes fault and sin, and creation’s original integrity included neither. Against Roman Catholicism, the Reformers taught that before the fall humanity had no need of any “superadded grace” (do-num super-add-i-tum) that would keep an inherent bent toward sin and corruption from erupting beyond control. We did not fall because God removed his grace and we followed our original propensity toward sin; we fell because, against the integrity of original righteousness, we freely rebelled against God’s love. The terms of the covenant of creation cannot be, and were not, simply set aside. But owing to God’s amazing grace, they have been fulfilled in place of the elect by his incarnate Son.
The doctrine of original sin describes our collective human guilt and corruption in Adam. No doctrine is more significant for biblical anthropology, yet none has been more relentlessly criticized. The doctrine arises from two principle biblical sources: (1) the covenantal shape of all God’s dealings with humanity and (2) the specific narrative of the fall from original integrity. The concept of solidarity or representative headship—human solidarity in Adam, Israel’s solidarity in Abraham and Moses, the elect’s solidarity in Christ—is basic to the biblical worldview. It is crucial for Christian theology to affirm the historical veracity of Adam and his representative sin. While there are metaphysical or ontological consequences to Adam’s transgression of the covenant (corruption and death), the basis of these and the essence of sin itself is legal and ethical (1 Cor. 15:56)—that is, just like our commission in the image of God, original sin is to be understood in covenantal terms. In highly developed nations today, amid Pelagian and individualistic presuppositions, it is incomprehensible that each and every person could be held responsible for participation in collective guilt (not just its consequences) on the basis of one person’s own transgression. But it is basic to biblical faith that we are guilty not only for Adam’s sin but as sinners in Adam.
Fundamentalism tends to reduce sin to evil personal behaviors; liberalism tends to reduce it to evil social structures. But sin is far deeper than either account. It is a condition—we sin because we are sinners, not vice versa. We are victims and perpetrators of sin; every sinner is also sinned against, both in interpersonal and broader social contexts. Scripture will not let us contrast “us” with “them” when it comes to sin but declares that all are under sin (Rom. 3:9–12). When reduced to the merely interpersonal dimension, sin becomes negative behaviors or failure to live up to personal or cultural expectations. When the divine-human dimension is considered primary, sin becomes guilt and condemnation before a holy and righteous Lord with whom we have broken covenant. Such divergent definitions of sin thus lead to radically different views of redemption.
Two helpful distinctions are necessary to account for both humanity’s universal sinfulness and corruption and its remaining goodness and abilities. The distinction between righteousness before God and before others—While Scripture (and experience) credits unbelievers with a certain goodness, justice, and wisdom in human affairs, it is the righteousness of God’s own character that is the standard by which all will be judged. The distinction between natural and moral ability—Humans possess a natural ability to obey God’s commands but lack the moral ability to love God and neighbor in accord with God’s righteous character; our human capacities and abilities were not lost in the fall but twisted and deformed in unrighteousness.
“Total depravity” does not mean that we are incapable of any justice or good before others; rather, it means that there is no aspect of our humanity that is left unfallen, from which we might make a beginning of justice and goodness before God. The soul, mind, and heart, as much as the body, are corrupt. Yet the fact that we can turn to God but will not manifests and reinforces our guilt (John 8:44; Rom. 1:18–2:16).
- Adam’s representative headship accounts for the grandeur and the tragedy of human existence; it sets in motion the great trial that sets the stage for the fulfillment of all things in Jesus, the faithful last Adam.
- The covenant of creation is implicitly and explicitly taught in Scripture, integrating both the legal and the familial aspects of humanity’s natural relationship to God and illuminating the character of Christ’s gracious work.
- No doctrine is more significant for a biblical anthropology than original sin, although none has been subject to more criticism.
- Human image-bearing was not lost in the fall (we retain our human personhood and dignity), but the exercise and purposes of the image have been spurned and perverted.
- God delayed the deadly consequences of Adam’s rebellion, making space for the outworking of the covenant of grace through its promise and fulfillment in Christ.
This was too good not to post; Joel Beeke (or Mark Jones) writing on the believers hope in the doctrine of perseverance,
The security of believers grounded in the covenant of grace is ultimately grounded in God’s promise of Himself to be our God. Thus, this fourth ground of perseverance ties together the previous grounds of the Father’s election, the Son’s purchase, and the Spirit’s sealing. True believers may be assured that they will have heaven because they already have the Lord as their covenant God, and that is the essence of heaven on earth. Richard Alleine (c. 1610–1681) said that when the Lord gives Himself in the covenant, all that He is in His glory, omnipotence, omniscience, wisdom, righteousness, holiness, all-sufficiency, and faithfulness becomes ours as our friend, portion, sun, and shield forever.63 Coles said “all the attributes of God do stand engaged” to guarantee that the saints will persevere to the end.64 So Puritan logic presses the application home: Is anything too hard for the Lord? The divine grounds of assurance are very important for the peace of the soul, for perseverance is no easy matter for mere men.
Excerpt From: Joel R. Beeke. “A Puritan Theology.” iBooks.
Biblical theology is one of the newer, up and coming, broadening branches of theology. The term itself has been used to indicate three different aspects of the discipline; firstly it can simply refer theology that is biblical; secondly, biblical theology became attached to a movement that arose in the 1940’s, flourished in the 1950’s, declined in the 60’s, and buried in the 70s’; Brevard Childs documented this movement in his book Biblical Theology in Crisis. Thirdly, biblical theology refers to a distinct movement that grew from German soil as part of the Enlightenment in reaction to the alleged failure of orthodox dogmatics to do justice to the historical character of the Bible. J.P. Gabler is customarily viewed as defining the principle of this movement, but the real pioneer from the Reformed perspective was Geerhardus Vos at Princeton in 1893. My discussion will focus on the third kind of biblical theology.
John Murray parroted Vos’s definition as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” The focus is on the process of the historically progressive redemptive character of special revelation. Biblical theology underscores historical diversity, while systematics tries to bring everything together. Both Vos and Murray insist on the organic character of the revelation process; they therefore prefer the title, “History of Special Revelation.”
The real question that these men pose is that of the interrelationship between special revelation of Scripture and systematic theology. All three of them are on the same page: although both disciplines are exegetically based and of a coordinating nature, they are distinct from each other in terms of method and structuring principles. The approach of biblical theology is primarily historical and that of systematic theology is primarily logical. Biblical theology deals with process of revelation while systematics deals with revelation as a finished product. J.J. Davis makes the distinction between what revelation means (systematics) and what it meant (biblical).
The weakness of biblical theology is that there might be a tendency to dwell on what it meant to the original audience. Systematic theology, the circle, can never ignore the line, biblical theology. When we root systematic theology in biblical theology, we achieve its true function and purpose. Biblical theology serves to guide exegesis. This is important because the Bible is not an encyclopedia of doctrine; rather, the Bible itself is revelation and a record of that revelation and leads to a culmination of redemptive history. It is fundamental then for systematic theology to keep in view the historic progressive character of revelation. A biblical theology emphasis will help to restrain systematic theology from surrendering to abstraction, from de-historicizing Scripture, and from ripping truths from their historical context. Systematic theology at the same time helps biblical theology to keep a sense of unity in the midst of historical diversity.
**This post was first seen at Place for Truth, A Voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
Creation’s origin cannot be appropriately understood apart from its eschatological aim. Creation was “very good” but in a real sense unfinished; it had before it the promise of a consummation in everlasting Sabbath blessedness. Humans were created in covenant relationship with God and one another for the purpose of securing this blessedness. Every nonbiblical anthropology begins with an assumption of the autonomous individual—intrinsically independent from God and creation and standing in sovereign judgment over God and creation.
I take the “days” of creation as analogical (though not mythological). They are God’s accommodation to his ordained pattern and commandment of six days of labor and one of rest. Eschatology is the principal motive: we were created and called to imitate God’s pattern of work (Adam’s trial of obedience) and rest (the Sabbath enjoyment held out to him). This original, creational covenant relationship is intrinsic to the meaning of being created in God’s image. All people retain some sense of God as their Lawgiver and Judge and of their obligation to love him and one another. This status as a commissioned servant of God, created in his image, renders every person both dignified and accountable. The fall did not obliterate humanity’s covenant relationship with God but divided humanity between the rebellious children of Cain and those of Seth, who called on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4).
To be created in God’s image is to be called persons in communion. Human existence and identity is not lodged in self-consciousness or in the ability to reason or to will; it is the result of being spoken by God and spoken to by God. And though all are determined as persons by the mere fact of our creation and calling in God’s image, our realization of the purpose of our personhood depends on whether we correspond to God’s intentions. Throughout Scripture, the faithful servant of God is the one who responds to the Great King’s commission, “Here I am.” Such an answer opens us up to the call of our neighbors as well as to God. The image’s relational character is undermined if it is identified with any faculty or capacity within the individual. The image is chiefly the law of love for God and neighbor written on the conscience.
Humans certainly differ from other creatures in their natural capacities for rational reflection, language, and deliberative action. By themselves, however, these distinguish us merely as more complex forms of biological life in certain respects. It is God’s command and promise and the role we have been given in his unfolding drama that marks our uniqueness. In short, the significance of the image of God is our moral likeness to our Creator and our covenantal commission in Adam to usher all creation into God’s everlasting Sabbath. The image is constituted by the following four characteristics.
- Sonship/royal dominion—As children and servant-kings of God, we are meant to exercise righteous, respectful, responsible dominion over the rest of creation.
- Representation—Like priests, we are meant to be analogues of God, official embassies of his character, will, and actions; this places the image in the realm of judicial commission (ethical relationship) rather than being a mirror of the divine essence (ontology).
- Glory—We were created as temples indwelled by the Holy Spirit, filled with the Father’s glory in his Son.
- Prophetic witness—We were created to hear God’s Word and then respond faithfully, to him in praise and to others in witness to God’s character and works.
The commission of imaging God, which Adam and his children have twisted and spurned, is truly fulfilled in all its kingly, priestly, and prophetic aspects in the eternal Son who became man, Jesus Christ, the very Image of his Father.
What Makes Us Human? A state of the theological debate, and a question that must be answered when studying anthropology. A fundamental shift is currently occurring in the West from a view of the self as a semidivine entity that transcends body, time, and change to a view of the self as a physical, malleable social construction of chemical interactions. Neither account is willing to receive identity from another—supremely God—as both a gift and a responsibility. Platonist or idealist ontology, with its spirit-matter dualism, has played a dominant role in philosophical and theological views of personhood. The real or “higher” self, which distinguishes humans from the nonhuman creation, is the immortal spirit (or soul or mind). This is also where the imago Dei (image of God) is centered. The body is something we inhabit and use for now but is not who we really are, certainly not forever. The closely related Neoplatonist distinction of persons into three aspects—spirit, soul, and body—a position known as trichotomy, has been a perennial temptation among a small minority of Christians.
If for Platonism all that is truly real is spiritual, then the opposite form of reductionism is materialism: there is no such thing as the soul or continued existence after bodily death. All we are and do as humans has a physical explanation. Modern science seems to support some form of materialism. Many liberal Protestant and Jewish scholars also suggest that the Old Testament is at best silent on the question of the soul and does not teach life after death. Reacting against Platonist dualism, some Christians advocate a modified monism, arguing that humans are such a unity of physical and spiritual that neither aspect may be separated or conceived distinctly from the other.
Scripture presupposes and directly affirms a distinction between the body and the soul or spirit (the dichotomy position), seen pointedly in the living soul’s presence with God after death, apart from the body. Dichotomy is not dualism; human nature is not to be identified exclusively or even primarily with the soul. The real self is the whole self, body and soul. Scripture addresses persons in their wholeness; we should not deny the (temporary) separability of body and soul in the intermediate state. While Platonism sees embodiment as a curse, biblical faith understands disembodiment as a curse.
Though God reigns and his purposes are sure, the apparent randomness of nature (discussed in the previous chapter) also characterizes history. We must avoid the twin dangers of hypersupernatural fatalism and antisupernatural materialism.
Direct/Indirect Cause: The Doctrine of Concursus
Concursus, or “concurrence,” in theology refers to the simultaneity of divine and human agency in actions or events. A biblical view of concursus requires more than God’s general oversight of history. Scripture testifies both to his predestination of all that comes to pass (primary or direct causation) and to the reality and responsibility of the decisions and actions of humans (secondary or indirect causation). In permitting evil, God not only lets it happen; he determines how far it will go and how he will work it out for good. Yet God’s work in hardening hearts is not the same as in softening them: God gives the redeemed a new heart, while he gives the wicked over to their own desires. God is neither the author of evil, nor a mere spectator of it. Fatalism and materialism share a common assumption of univocity between God’s willing and acting and human willing and acting; either our activity must give way to God’s or vice versa. But God’s activity and our activity do not need to get out of each others’ way; God causes all history to serve his sovereign purposes without canceling the ordinary liberty, contingency, and reality of creaturely causation.
The Revealed/Hidden Distinction
Scripture distinguishes between matters hidden from us and those revealed to us (Deut. 29:29). God’s hidden will is distinguished from his revealed will. We must not attempt to figure out God’s secret providence; we must attend to the means he has provided for our salvation (Word and sacrament) and to earthly welfare (family, friendships, vocation, and so on). Though God has not promised to reveal to us everything we might want to know about his will for our lives and about our trials, we should trust his promises as sufficient for faith and life in Christ. After all, the time and place where evil seemed most triumphant was the cross, where it was forever defeated.
Common Grace/Special Grace|
Providence belongs to God’s common rather than special (or saving) grace, although the former ultimately serves the latter (e.g., Eph. 1:10; 3:9–12). Common grace is responsible for God’s kindness and benefits to all people indiscriminately.
- It restrains personal and corporate human sin.
- It restrains God’s wrath and delays his judgment.
- It bestows goodness and kindness upon unbelievers.
To affirm God’s common grace is to recognize the God-given truth, goodness, and beauty in the world, not simply its sinfulness and corruption. When we disparage these, we are holding the providential work of the Holy Spirit in contempt.
Unlike ordinary providence, miracles are God’s extraordinary suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes. The difference does not concern whether God is involved in every aspect of our lives, but how. The question is not whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God’s involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous.
Some notion of divine providence is one of the most universally attested religious assumptions throughout history, yet it is one of the most contested in the modern world, for two main reasons:
- It is difficult to acknowledge gifts, much less a transcendent Giver, in a world of supposed givens; contemporary technologically advanced cultures are often far removed from the actual, personal sources behind the goods and services we enjoy.
- A secularized, romantic notion of providence was employed to give divine sanction to imperialist cultures, nations, and ideologies, with devastating consequences; the terrors of the twentieth century disillusioned many regarding a “benevolent Providence” undergirding unending historical progress.
Christians must realize that, while God’s saving will in Christ has been clearly revealed in the gospel, the precise activity of God’s providential governance remains largely hidden (even from believers).
The doctrines of the Trinity and predestination (or God’s decree) come together in the eternal covenant of redemption: before the world existed, the triune God is already turned toward us, with a purpose to create all things and redeem a people for everlasting fellowship.
I. Drama to Doctrine to Doxology
Predestination is clearly taught in Scripture, but its meaning has been debated throughout the history of the church. The Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign over all that comes to pass. There is also a close connection between God’s foreknowledge and foreordination: God knows all things exhaustively because he has decreed them from eternity. Therefore, even the sinful acts of humans are included in God’s plans, though they remain freely willed by us. Predestination typically refers to God’s sovereign determination of all events, while election and reprobation refer to his decree with regard to salvation or condemnation. There are four key conclusions to draw from the biblical testimony on these themes:
- Predestination is an exercise of God’s that freely expresses his character; because he is holy, righteous, loving, and good, God cannot will any ultimate
- Reformed theology distinguishes between God’s permission and positive determination; God neither sins nor causes people to sin, though in his goodness and wisdom he remains Lord over sinners and sinful acts.
- God’s decree in eternity and its execution in time must be carefully distinguished; purposes are different from their fulfillment, and determinations are different from their accomplishment—both must be affirmed.
- God’s sovereignty is not only demonstrated in narratives and described in doctrines; it is celebrated in praise, such that only when we are led to doxology have we really understood the revelation of the mystery of God’s decree.
II. Historical Interpretations of God’s Decree
Divergent historical positions on predestination have often reflected deep theological disagreements about the God-world relation and the meaning of salvation.
- Pelagianism—God elects to salvation on the basis of foreseen faith and obedience accomplished from our own free will, even apart from gracious assistance.
- Semi-Pelagianism—Though human salvation begins in our free movement toward God, growth and ultimate salvation require God’s gracious assistance (and our subsequent cooperation).
- Augustinianism—Against Pelagianism: God unconditionally elects to gracious salvation (including the faith and obedience of the redeemed will) and reprobates to just condemnation because of sin.
- Arminianism—Against the Reformed: God’s grace is not only necessary for perfecting faith and obedience but is a precondition for both, yet this preceding grace is universally available to all, God electing those he foresees will exercise their free will toward faith and good works.
- Socinianism—Denies both God’s predestination and foreknowledge of the free acts of creatures.
- Eastern Orthodoxy—Often understands the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy as a Western problem because of the focus on legal categories but nevertheless affirms synergism—that is, salvation is a process of grace-assisted cooperation with God.
- Lutheranism—Does not fit into any of the preceding categories; denies the Augustinian-Reformed understanding of reprobation and the irresistibility of grace but is just as committed to monergism (salvation is the work of God alone).
The notion that predestination is the “central dogma,” or all-controlling idea from which the whole Reformed theological system is deduced, has been refuted by recent historical scholarship. It is of immense benefit to consider our election in Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel, but it is a dangerous labyrinth if we presume to speculate about God’s secret counsels.
III. The Logical Order of God’s Decree
There is no temporal before and after in God’s eternal decision making; “succession” in God’s decree is a logical rather than chronological consideration. The main question is whether God’s decision to elect some and reprobate others came before or after his decision to permit humanity’s fall. The supralapsarian answer is that election comes before the decree to permit the fall. The fall—as well as creation itself—serve to carry out God’s free purposes in election and reprobation. The infralapsarian answer is that election comes after the decree to permit the fall. Election and reprobation are God’s free, gracious, and just response to the fall of his human creatures.
A.Traditional Reformed Interpretations
Both infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism (but not necessarily their terminology) have a long history in Western theology. It is difficult to classify the Reformers on this issue, except Zwingli, who was consistently supralapsarian. The Reformed orthodox tolerated supralapsarianism but favored infralapsarianism. Supralapsarianism seems to make God the author of evil and suggests election to salvation and reprobation to condemnation are virtually parallel “positive” purposes of God. While election is the cause of salvation, reprobation should never be seen as the cause of condemnation.
B. Barth’s Revised Supralapsarianism
Barth brought this internal Reformed debate to the forefront of theology by strongly endorsing a thoroughly reworked supralapsarian position: Jesus Christ the one Son of God is also the one eternally Elect Man, and all humanity is already eternally elected, justified, and sanctified in him. Such a position collapses time into eternity and law into gospel, undermining the historical reality and diverse characteristics of God’s activities in creation and redemption. Yet in his radical supralapsarianism and affirmation of universal election, Barth stopped short of advocating the final universal salvation of all humanity.
(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Nine)
If covenantal thinking forms the architecture of Reformed faith and practice, then the doctrine of the Trinity is its foundation. As seen throughout The Christian Faith, this doctrine is not merely one among many, but is proclaimed in the church’s message of salvation and structures all Christian theology, liturgy, prayer, and praise.
Biblical-Theological Development of the Doctrine
Just as faith in Yahweh and no other is the foundation of Old Testament faith and practice (e.g., Deut. 6:4), so New Testament believers affirmed and carried on this faith in the uniqueness of the God of Israel (e.g., Eph. 4:6). At the same time, Jesus called this one God his Father in an exclusive sense and claimed to bear the same divine character and authority. His followers confessed him as Lord and trusted him for salvation, all the while rejecting pagan polytheism. The Bible clearly testifies, in the context of strict monotheism, to both the full divinity and distinct personality of the Son (e.g., John 1:1–3) and the Spirit (e.g., Matt. 28:19; 2 Peter 1:21). Long before the biblical dogma of the Trinity was formally refined, then, believers were trusting in and praying to the triune God whom it describes. We know God as our Father in his one and only Son; the Father directs us to his Son as our Lord; Jesus is the way to the Father and sends his Spirit into our hearts; the Spirit enables us to call on the Father through the Son. Christian worship is Trinitarian as well, reflected in baptism into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and in the New Testament’s liturgical forms and benedictions (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:14).
Though Christian Trinitarianism arose in the context of Jewish monotheism, it’s elaboration and defense came amid encounters with Greek objections.
The Emergence of Christian Trinitarianism
The historical development of Trinitarian dogma is a primary illustration that Christian theology is always done within a specific context, yet with an overriding concern for Scripture as its source and norm. The main cultural problem Trinitarian doctrine encountered was a philosophical privileging of the one (unity) over the many (plurality). Some, like Origen, believed that all plurality is a “fall” from unity and confessed the Son and the Spirit as truly God, but essentially derivative of and inferior to the Father. Others, like Arius, felt that any distinction in properties and names denotes a distinction in natures, and separated the Son and the Spirit from the one God, the Father. Still others, like Sabellius, saw plurality in God as a temporary self-presentation for the purposes of creation and redemption—apart from and above the economy, God is not Trinity. Against each of these ways of privileging unity over plurality in God, teachers like Athanasius and especially the Cappadocians developed increasingly nuanced ways of speaking about the essential unity and the personal plurality in God, so that both may be affirmed according to the integrity of the biblical witness. God is one “essence” in three “persons.” The persons, or “hypostases,” are not simply roles that the one God takes on or aspects of his character, but they are each distinctly and all together the one God. This catholic consensus emerged with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creed (381). Differences between Eastern and Western Trinitarian formulations are frequently over exaggerated, but in so central a doctrine every nuance can be significant. The Western, Augustinian tradition has sometimes had trouble maintaining a robust account of the distinct characteristics of all three persons in their individual existence and mutually shared activity. In both traditions, the common Trinitarian faith was affirmed, but with different accents and conceptual frameworks, often leading to tension on important points (such as the filioque).
Essential Attributes and Personal Properties
Calvin and the Reformed tradition received and developed the Trinitarianism of their forebears, against rising neo-Arianism and Unitarianism from the sixteenth century. Reformed theologians, though indebted to Augustine’s emphasis on the divine persons’ essential unity, also emphasized with the Cappadocians the personal distinctions of the divine persons. In this vein, Calvin’s insistence on each person’s essential self-existence (each is “autotheos,” as the one self-existent God), while affirming the Father as the personal source of his only begotten Son and the Spirit who proceeds from both, navigated between tendencies toward subordinationism on one hand and modalism on the other. With some variation in language and explanation, the Reformed after Calvin continued this twofold emphasis on essential unity and personal distinction. Especially significant was Reformed insistence that in every outward activity of the one God (toward creatures), the persons operate in distinct ways to accomplish their unified work, in accord with their intrinsic personal characteristics.
- The beginning of all activity belongs to the Father.
- The counsel or pattern belongs to the Son.
- The efficacy belongs to the Spirit.
The Trinity in Modern Theology
Modern Enlightenment theology largely rejected or ignored classical Trinitarian theology until Hegel appealed to a radically recast view of the Trinity for his philosophy of “Spirit” realizing itself in the process of history. The twentieth century experienced a revival of Trinitarian theology in the wake of Karl Barth’s break with Protestant liberalism, and in many respects contemporary debates in Trinitarian theology still reflect the legacy of Barth and Hegel. Those following Barth’s trajectory tend to privilege the oneness of God, by so stressing the absolute subjectivity of God in self-revelation as Lord, that the genuine distinctiveness and mutuality of the three persons is undermined. Those following Hegel’s trajectory tend to privilege the plurality in God, by so distinguishing Father, Son, and Spirit in their identities, wills, and actions—sometimes even in essences—that the unity of God’s nature is endangered.
One and Many: Systematic-Theological Development: The following sections offer two guidelines for theological reflection on the Trinity.
We Should Recognize that All of Our Definitions of Person in Relation to the Godhead Are Analogies. If traditional analogies for the Trinity—such as Peter, James, and John sharing in humanity—are taken univocally, they lead to either tritheism or modalism. But classical Trinitarians were very careful to make clear the analogical nature of all our knowledge of God’s being and to counter the partial potentially misleading aspects of Trinitarian analogies by appealing to the fullness of the revealed character of the triune God. We should neither accept or reject such important Trinitarian concepts as “person” by directly applying to God any existing human definitions. We must avoid univocity of concepts and language, both between our notions and God’s being and between God as he has revealed himself and God in his hidden majesty.
Our Formulations Should Acknowledge that the Three Persons Are Not Simply Relations but Distinct Subsistences with Their Own Incommunicable Attributes. While the Father, the Son, and the Spirit do not differ with respect to the divine essence and attributes they share, they possess personal characteristics that they do not share. Only the Father is unbegotten; only the Son is begotten; only the Spirit is spirated (breathed). In every external work of the Godhead, the Father is always source, the Son always mediator, and the Spirit always perfecter. The divine persons are not merely relations but persons in relation. It is not simply that the relations of begetting, being begotten, and being spirated are essential to the personal identities of Father, Son, and Spirit but also that the persons themselves are essential to each other’s identity. Each is an unsubstitutable agent who lives, wills, and acts in a distinct way that is never separated from the others. The covenant of redemption is the primary illustration of these points.
The variation between the East and the West became a formal schism (in 1054) with a debate that started in the sixth century and still continues, over whether the Spirit proceeds only from the Father or from the Father “and the Son” (filioque), as the West inserted into the Nicene Creed. Advocates of the Western position argue for the filioque from such texts as John 14:16 and Romans 8:9, where the Spirit is identified as “the Spirit of God” and “of Christ,” sent by the Son as well as the Father. Eastern advocates say that the Spirit is only ever explicitly said to “proceed” from the Father (in John 15:26 ESV, wording that is echoed in the unaltered Nicene Creed). The Reformed tradition has historically followed the Western view. Though this controversy deals with significant questions of the character of God’s unity and the relationship between the immanent Trinity (God in himself) and the economic Trinity (God in relation to us), the filioque question does not of itself threaten the ecumenical consensus on the Trinity.
(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Eight)
God’s communicable attributes are those that belong to God alone but are also predicable of creatures in an analogical sense.
I. Omniscience and Omnipotence: God’s Knowledge, Wisdom, and Power
God is all-knowing. Our knowledge is partial, ectypal, composite, and learned, but God’s is complete, archetypal, simple, and innate. God’s knowledge and wisdom are true (logically as well as ethically) because God is truth. God’s knowledge is consistent with all his other attributes; he knows independently, eternally, and unchangeably, in harmony with his wisdom, power, and faithfulness. God’s knowledge of creaturely existence and history is exhaustive because he has decreed all things from the beginning and works all things according to his will (Eph. 1:11).
A. Free Agents and the Infinite-Qualitative Distinction
Debates over divine and human freedom often share a problematic assumption that “freedom” is the same sort of reality for God and for humans. Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians (especially open theists) are both wrong in supposing there is only one “freedom pie” that must be apportioned between God and us. “Freedom” is analogically rather than univocally applied to God and humans: God has all the freedom appropriate to him as God, and we have all the freedom appropriate to us as (fallen) creatures who live and move and have our being in God and his sovereign, good purposes Just as in the paradigmatic examples of Joseph’s slavery in Egypt (Gen. 50:20) and the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23), God’s free decree does not take away human freedom or moral responsibility but establishes it.
B. Sovereignty and Omniscience
God knows our thoughts completely, but his are inaccessible to us apart from accommodated revelation—and his way of knowing transcends us entirely. On one hand, Scripture teaches that God has predestined the free acts of human beings; on the other hand, God manifests himself as a genuine partner in human history. God genuinely invites the whole world to salvation in his Son yet effectually calls and gives faith to all and only those whom he has elected from eternity. Though God’s revealed purposes are sometimes thwarted or changed, his unchanging purposes (the “secret things” of God, Deut. 29:29) cannot fail.
C. Sovereignty and Omnipresence
Because God is Trinity, he acts not only upon creation externally but also with and in it—not only causing but winning and effecting real creaturely willing and consent. A biblical view of God’s sovereignty must recognize the following three correlatives.
- Only when we see that God is qualitatively distinct from creation can we see that he is free to be the Creator and Redeemer, while we are free to be creatures and the redeemed.
- Only when we understand God’s sovereignty in light of his simplicity can we avoid the notion of divine despot, with an absolute will unconditioned by his intrinsic character.
- We must always bear in mind that in every exercise of will and power, God is not a solitary monad but Father, Son, and Spirit; sovereignty is not brute force or unmediated control.
II. Goodness, Love, and Mercy
God’s knowledge, wisdom, and power are inseparable from his goodness, love, and mercy. God is independent in his goodness and love and thus is free to be good to all he has made and to love even his enemies. We can never pit God’s love against his other attributes, idolizing “love” in a way that marginalizes God’s sovereignty or goodness (including his righteousness, holiness, and so on). The clearest witness to the complete consistency between all God’s attributes is the cross. If God’s love could trump his other moral attributes, the cross represents the cruelest waste. Rather, what makes God’s love so comforting is that it is unconditioned by anything in us, expressed out of satisfied abundance rather than lack or fear. While God is not free to be unmerciful, he is free to decide whether he will have mercy on some rather than others—this is, after all, the opposite of every sinner’s just deserts. Indeed, grace is not something (else) that God gives but God’s own redeeming favor shown to the undeserving on account of Christ.
III. Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice
At the same time that God is good, loving, and merciful, he is holy—distinct from all creatures in his being, majesty, and ethical purity. The merciful character of God’s holiness reveals his movement toward impure creatures in covenant love, setting apart a holy people for himself. In the Old Testament righteousness is both a forensic and relational term—a “right relationship.” Although God’s righteousness is intrinsically related to his mercy (since he is just and the justifier of the ungodly), his righteousness cannot be collapsed into his mercy. As the revelation of his moral will (law), God is perfectly righteous to condemn all as transgressors; as the revelation of his will to save (gospel), God is perfectly just to forgive and redeem through faith in Christ. In both cases, God upholds his righteousness.
IV. Jealousy and Wrath
Like his mercy and grace, God’s jealousy and wrath are displayed only in response to an offense. God does not need to show mercy or wrath in order to be who he is, but these are the responses we should expect from God who is good, holy, and just. The doctrine of analogy again proves fruitful in considering God’s jealousy and wrath, which carry almost entirely negative connotations in our human experience. Instead of denying these clearly biblical attributes of God, we must reinterpret our understanding of according to how God has described himself to us. God’s wrath always expresses his wisdom and love, which have been spurned and transgressed by those whom he created to love. God who is holy, righteous, and loving must exercise wrath against sin, injustice, and hate. The unique lordship of YHWH is a constant theme in Scripture, as is God’s jealousy for his name, his glory, and his people’s covenantal allegiance. God’s jealousy must be understood in light of his exclusivity: God is God alone. In us, jealousy is often a form of coveting that which is not really ours; in God, jealousy is a form of protecting his character and his people, which are both precious to him.
(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Seven)
R.C. Sproul writes,
People get confused, however, when considering this alongside of God’s mercy and grace, because grace is not justice. Grace and mercy are outside the category of justice, but they are not inside the cate- gory of injustice. There is nothing wrong with God’s being merciful; there is nothing evil in His being gracious. In fact, in one sense, we have to extend this. Even though justice and mercy are not the same thing, justice is linked to righteousness, and righteousness may at times include mercy and grace. The reason we need to distinguish between them is that justice is necessary to righteousness, but mercy and grace are actions God takes freely. God is never required to be merciful or gracious. The moment we think that God owes us grace or mercy, we are no longer thinking about grace or mercy. Our minds tend to trip there so that we confuse mercy and grace with justice. Justice may be owed, but mercy and grace are always voluntary.
(HT: Everyone’s a Theologian)
God’s incommunicable attributes are most often criticized as being a philosophical or metaphysical corruption of the biblical understanding of God. But whenever such metaphysical claims have been rejected, they are replaced by others no less metaphysical. While we should never assume that the God of the Bible is identical with the “God” of classical philosophy, we must also recognize that every doctrinal account of God’s identity and character will include metaphysical claims. The question is not whether we have an ontology of God’s being and attributes but whether our ontology is biblically faithful.
God is noncomposite: he is simultaneously all that his attributes reveal. This does not mean that his attributes cannot be distinguished from one another, but that none of them are separable from God or carry a greater or lesser importance for his character. God is eternal even when he acts in time. He is not more holy than merciful, or more loving at some times than he is righteous at other times. He is holy even in showing mercy, and righteous in demonstrating his love. All that God is, is what he will always be; and in all his activity God is self-consistent.
B. Self-Existence (Aseity)
God exists and acts apart from any external dependence. While God is perfect without us, he freely and generously creates and relates this creation to himself. Creatures exist in constant dependence on our relation to him. Independent of creaturely limitations, he can be trusted to bring about his sovereign purposes on behalf of his people (Ex. 3:14–15). Some—like open theists—criticize this doctrine as a Stoic ideal of detached self-sufficiency, lacking the mutual drama between God and the world seen in the Bible. Many want to deny any difference between God in himself and God as he reveals himself to us. In such ontologies of “overcoming estrangement,” God and the world are inherently related and mutually dependent. Yet God’s freedom from creation does not preclude but undergirds the very possibility of his true freedom for creation. God’s aseity marks the fundamental divide between biblical faith and all forms of pan(en)theism. At the same time, the (Stoic) deism characteristic of an ontology of “the stranger we never meet” is overturned by God’s free decision to enter into relationship with the world he has made. While the Stoic sage desires to sever his dependence on the world of which he is necessarily a part, the independent God desires to bring dependent (and sinful) creatures into communion with himself.
God is unchangeable. Perfect and complete in himself from all eternity, he has no “potential” to be realized; any change would be toward imperfection. This does not mean God is static or inert; rather, he is wholly active in the fullness and completeness of his own being and cannot become more or less who he is. God is unchangeable, and so he is reliable in his judgments and promises. While his being and character do not change, his activity (energies) is manifold and freely determined. Many modern theologians who understand God’s being as “becoming” in history have challenged God’s immutability by appealing to the incarnation: “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). But the eternal Son’s assumption of human nature in the unity of his person in no way constitutes or diminishes the character of his divine nature. It is crucial to avoid two extremes: either that God is detached, unfeeling, unresponsive, or that he acts and feels and responds in the very same ways we do. Though God genuinely responds, he cannot be overwhelmed by surprise; though he truly experiences opposition, he is not overcome; and so on. The total witness of the Bible requires that we affirm both: there is real change, partnership, and conflict between God and human beings, but not within God’s inner being.
Unlike the caricature of much contemporary criticism, God’s impassibility is not unresponsiveness or emotional apathy but immunity to suffering. God’s emotional experience and responsiveness in free relation to the world are always analogical. On one hand, we must deny that God is untouched or unaffected by creaturely suffering, experiencing neither joy nor sorrow, love nor hate; on the other hand, we must affirm that God is Lord—never the passive victim, but always the free and active Judge and Justifier. To avoid the extremes of utter detachment and mutual dependence, we should keep in mind the following five points regarding God’s immunity to suffering.
- We must avoid a false choice between either God’s necessary relatedness to the world or the world’s unrelatedness to God.
- It is crucial that impassibility is an essential attribute of the triune God; though the persons engage in relationships with the world, their divine nature is not by itself the subject of action and response.
- We must recognize that God speaks to us analogically—in terms adequate to our understanding rather than adequate to his being.
- A Christian doctrine of God should supplement causal categories with (Trinitarian) communicative analogies; God is not simply Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but the Father who speaks to us in his Son by the Spirit.
- We must beware of allowing a theology of the cross to become a theology of glory; a theology of “the suffering God” may inadvertently lead to a legitimization of suffering and evil, since these are said to be an integral part of God’s very being.
E. Eternity and Omnipresence
Eternity and omnipresence refer to God’s transcendence of time and space, respectively. God’s eternity is his existence above or beyond time, simultaneously possessing the fullness of his boundless life and eternally encompassing the whole of creaturely (temporal) life. Some hold that God is sempiternal, existing within time but without any beginning or end. Biblically, however, it seems time itself is a creaturely category—like space—attributable to God only in an analogical sense referring to his transcendence of it (e.g., Ps. 90:1–4). Properly understanding God’s eternity (and the limits of our understanding in the face of this mystery) is related to the meaning of his omnipresence: it is God’s transcendence of space that brings the deepest assurance of God’s presence in all places (e.g., Ps. 139:7–8). God’s presence with his people indicates, not his spatial absence somewhere else, but his covenantal commitment to be with us to save and to bless. God is “omnitemporal” in the same way; he comprehends all times and is active within time, because he is not contained by it.
(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Six)
The puritans used special times for meditation, and there were five different times they commonly would refer too.
- When God does revive your spirit, spiritual vitality, when the mind is fertile use it to continue its growth.
- When you are cast into perplexities of mind and affliction, on the goodness of the Lord, he will be faithful to those that seek after him.
- When you’re ready to die, looking back on your life, spend the time in the Scriptures keeping constant reminder of the promises God has give to the Christian.
- When the heart is touched by a sermon or sacrament; as the puritans taught it is “best striking when the iron is hot” so that you continue to shape and mold ones mind around the truths of Scripture.
- Before solemn duties, the Lords’ supper, the Sabbath, or after humiliation.
Meditate until you’ve had some sensible communion with God, a sensible benefit conveyed to your soul. The Puritans would commonly use such an analogy; trying to make a fire with wet wood, only the persevering soul will win, first some sparks, and some smoke, but at the last a flame. What if the flame does not ascend? This might discourage if prolonged; if failed today, then try again tomorrow, keeping in mind that it should not become a burden and a bondage to the Christian. (HT: William Bates)
The Puritans stressed the need for christian meditation, what we commonly refer to as devotions. These reasons can be summarized easily in six points.
- Our God who commands us to believe the Scriptures, and it also commands us also to meditate on it, in that the Scripture is sufficient for doing it. Often the puritans would use biblical characters as examples to compel their church members to do this; Isaac, Moses, Paul, Timothy, Joshua, David, Mary. For example; Psalm 19:14 reads, Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
- Meditate on the word, because it is God’s letter to us. Christian do not run over God’s letter in haste, but meditate on his love in sending it to us.
- One cannot be a mature Christian without meditation. Thomas Manton once said, “faith is lean and ready to starve without meditation.”
- Without meditation the preached word will fail to benefit us. Baxter said, “reading without meditation is like swallowing raw and undigested food, a man may eat too much, but cannot digest too well.” The sermon is not enough for the Christian’s weekly living, he must constantly be reading, and applying the truths of Scripture to his life.
- Without meditation our prayers will not be effective; this serves as a middle sort of duty between word and prayer. The Scripture feeds meditation, and meditation feeds prayer.
- Christians who fail to meditate are unable to defend the truth. Without proper meditation on the Scriptures, the Christian has no backbone, and no self-knowledge. Manton would teach, “man who is a stranger to meditation does not know himself. ”
As Thomas Watson preached, and we may need to ponder “tis meditation that makes a Christian.”
Many by now have heard of Joshua Harris’s Sunday Remarks at Covenant Life Church yesterday,
“My big news is that later this spring I’m going to step down from my role as lead pastor so that I can go to seminary.”
Three thoughts come to my mind, that I wish others, not only Joshua Harris, would begin to consider when pursuing full time ministry, the pastorate, and or theological education;
1. If such formal theological education is needed for the pastorate, and it is I strongly believe, why was it not prior to your pastoral calling? Not only for Joshua, but pastor’s in general, stop taking the easy route into a so called calling, and properly prepare yourselves for what you believe to be called to. I certainly would not seek a triple bypass surgery on my heart from a called doctor who has practically practiced such operation under his own care. No, I would rather seek medical attention from a doctor who has been formally trained, certified, with such knowledge that I can entrust my physical life to. How much more should we as laity consider our spiritual life, to consider who we entrust our own soul’s well being.
2. If such formal theological education is desired, why would you (let alone many) choose Regent College? I have learned these lessons, attending a college that you later regret in life can always create problems, especially on the resume. Why not Kings College, maybe Wheaton, or Boyce, Grove City, Hillsdale, or even Liberty online? Or better yet, any bachelor degree program within America. Perhaps when The Curious Case of Benjamin Button plays a role in how you came to such decision, then yes, by all means who cares where you study, when it is only “a year with a good possibility that I [he] will stay a second year to pursue a masters degree.” How much formal theological education can one possibly fix and finish in a year, maybe two? Seems a slap in the face to those who have went and studied seven plus years formal theological education before they would even consider applying for the pastorate.
3. If such formal theological education is planned, why can it not be planned to be completed while one continues to work? If already in the pastorate, and given the numerous opportunities in todays educational programs that one could obtain formal education while still in full time or part time employment, why step down, and why leave? I deal with similar situations on a semester basis at seminary. Pastor walks in, asks to speak with me, and realizes he should have completed his M.Div. before preaching through his tenth book with his congregation, and has what he believes made a number of errors will in the pastorate. My advice to them is this: one, I am glad you have noticed this, two, repent of any sin you have caused in this failure, and three, do not quit on them as you make this transition. Just because a pastor may have mistaken here does not mean that they can go fix themselves, without walking through such fixes with his congregation.
These concerns brought about by Joshua Harris’s recent decision, go to show us the state of apperception for formal theological education in the evangelical church today. I cannot count the Facebook friends that have recently made the switch after eight to ten years in an occupation, having come to Jesus Christ, that feel compelled to start a church, pastor a church, and or start a para-church ministry. Two, I cannot count the continual conversations with Baltimore pastors over the past four-years on how they wish they had went to seminary before taken up the call of a pastor. Three, I cannot count the number of pastors who have quiet their formal education, or put it on hold because they found (or was handed) a job in minstry that they were not formally prepared to obtain. I understand there are CH Spurgeon’s in this world, but I have yet to meet 20 year-olds like him, having already mastered the biblical languages, and as well read within Puritan thought and theology as he.
Yesterday I was able to give introductions to two courses I am instructing this 2105 spring semester; Theology Proper and Anthropology and Historical Books for the B.Th. students at Faith Theological Seminary. After giving two hours plus of introductory material to these courses, and hearing a number of moans and groans on why such material needed addressed I was reminded of one of FTS’s own M.Div. graduates, Francis A. Schaeffer’s who wrote on theological study,
It is naive to discuss the theological questions as theological questions until one has considered what truth means to the one who is making the theological statements.
After spending time explaining how God is describe within theology three ways; The via negationis: A via is a “road” or “way.” The word negationis simply means “negation,” which is a primary way we speak about God. In other words, we describe God by saying what He is not. The via eminentiae, “the way of eminence,” in which we take known human concepts or references to the ultimate degree, such as the terms omnipotence and omniscience. The via affirmationis, or “way of affirmation,” whereby we make specific statements about the character of God, such as “God is one,” “God is holy,” and “God is sovereign.” (HT: Summary Taken from Everyone’s a Theologian). I find it common within Baltimore that most of my students rather discuss what they think about theology then actually taking the time to learn what the Scriptures declare for them to know about theology. Maybe, if they, like most evangelical churches today took the time to study what they claim to believe than discussing unnecessary questions, they would have actually come to asking the right questions that they need to be addressing? Then again, why not waste your time and thoughts, for there is far worse things that you could be doing, or not. Maybe, just maybe presuppositionalism does has a place in theology.
Roman Catholicism has traditionally affirmed Scripture’s inspiration and inerrancy; arguments with Protestants during the Reformation developed around the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Roman Catholic teaching considers Sacred Scripture (the Bible, with the apocryphal books) and Sacred Tradition (originally unwritten traditions passed down by the apostles and their successors) to be two integral aspects of the one Word of God. While Roman Catholicism treats tradition as magisterial (tradition possesses normative authority together with Scripture), classical Protestantism treats tradition as ministerial (tradition, reason, experience, and culture are all under the authority of Scripture). Historically, Protestants have admitted that written Scripture and oral tradition were two aspects of God’s special revelation, but that time came to an end with the close of the apostolic era. While Roman Catholics believe the apostolic office still continues today in the church’s hierarchy, Protestants argue that the church’s preaching and teaching ministry no longer lays the foundation built once and for all by the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20). There is a qualitative difference between binding apostolic tradition (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15) and the fallible traditions of the covenant community—even its leadership (Mark 7:1–13).
Faithful tradition belongs to the Spirit’s illumination, not to inspiration. Thus, creeds and confessions carry a subordinate authority to Scripture, as faithful summaries of Scripture’s overarching scope (its testimony to the triune God and his ways, centering in the gospel of Christ). The witness of the church serves Scripture’s authority rather than establishes it. This includes the nature of the canon’s formation. The church did not create the canon through ecclesiastical power; it recognized these particular writings as the authoritative Word of God.
The sufficiency of Scripture is inseparable from its clarity. This does not mean that all parts of Scripture are equally plain or lack depth of meaning, nor does it deny past and present controversy over biblical interpretation within the church. Scripture is clear on its most important matters, when interpreted according to its own witness, within the broader community of faith, and in light of its scope. If such weighty matters of Scripture are not clear in their purity and simplicity, the teacher rather than the text is at fault. Sola Scriptura is not simply an affirmation of the unique authority of the Bible but a confession of the sovereignty of God’s grace—because God alone saves, God alone teaches and rules our faith and practice.
In modern and contemporary theology, Protestantism has had difficulty retaining its classical emphasis on the unique authority and sufficiency of Scripture, often folding God’s voice into that of the Christian community or the individual believer. Even those who hold a high view of biblical authority may inadvertently subordinate God’s Word by assimilating contemporary culture’s assumptions about reality, then attempting to address this reality with the Bible. We should rather interpret all of reality in light of God’s Word, allowing Scripture to address us as well as the world.
Definitions are particularly important here: The gospel is properly understood as the specific announcement of redemption from sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus in fulfillment of all God’s promises, while“culture” may be defined in this context as the common realm of social practices, vocations, beliefs, and assumptions shared by Christians and non-Christians in a given time and place. Like tradition, reason, and experience, culture is not inherently evil or opposed to faith, but none of these testify to God’s gracious and saving action in Christ. The church’s primary “cultural location” is in Christ, under the normative authority of Scripture. When culture is given an authoritative or normative role alongside Scripture in the church, the world cannot be judged or redeemed by the living voice of God from outside itself.
HT: Summary taken from chapter five of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.
The formulation of B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge is perhaps the best articulation and development of the church’s historical doctrine and may be summarized as follows.
- A sound doctrine of inspiration requires a specifically Christian ontology; all misconceptions of or challenges to the historical view of inerrant inspiration ultimately rest on false suppositions regarding the relation between God and creatures.
- Scripture’s redemptive-historical progression and development must be highlighted; inspiration is organic rather than mechanical (as in the dictation theory).
- The question of apparent contradictions and errors must be squarely faced and addressed.
- It is the communication that is inspired, not the authors themselves; we should not imagine the prophets and apostles to be personally omniscient or infallible.
- The Bible is inspired and without error in all its “real affirmations”; the human authors’ recorded claims and affirmations, not their scientific or cultural assumptions and backgrounds, are the inspired and inerrant Word of God.
- Inerrancy is not the foundation of the doctrine of Scripture (much less of the Christian faith); Christianity is true not because it rests on an inspired and inerrant text, but vice versa.
The inerrancy debate in American evangelicalism is largely one between Old Princeton and Karl Barth. The former is often caricatured as fundamentalism, while the latter is equally caricatured as liberalism. Nonetheless, Barth’s view, like fundamentalism and liberalism, is quite different from that of Protestant orthodoxy here in America. Barth’s criticism of traditional inerrancy stems from his actualism—that is, his ontology of God as “being in act,” specifically applied to the free activity of revelation as identical with the very being of God. Revelation is always an event of God’s self-revelation in Christ, never an objective deposit. Scripture is the church’s normative witness to revelation, and as a creaturely witness it is not only fallible but (like Christ’s human nature) necessarily fallen. Barth also tends to collapse inspiration into illumination, since he seems to allow no qualitative distinction between revelation in and through the Bible and the church’s reception and interpretation of it. Some evangelicals have attempted to reconcile Barth’s views with the church’s traditional understanding, but these continue to employ the fundamentalist caricature rather than the truly classical view of inspiration and inerrancy.
HT: Summary taken from chapter four of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.
The classical (and ecumenical) Christian view of verbal-plenary inspiration means that Scripture is inspired in its form as well as its content—in its words as well as its meaning, Scripture is the Word of God written. There are several misconceptions of this account of inspiration that need to be corrected.
- Verbal-plenary inspiration does not mean that everything the prophets and apostles personally believed, said, or did is inspired, but only their canonical writings.
- The biblical authors were not merely passive in the process of inspiration but active in and with the Spirit according to his purposes.
- Inspiration does not pertain simply to the intentions of the authors, who prophesied more than they themselves knew.
- This view of inspiration does not attempt to collapse the character of all inspiration into the prophetic mold.
While the original words of Scripture were given by God’s direct or indirect action in inspiration, the compiling, editing, and preserving of the text was superintended by his providence as well.
HT: Summary taken from chapter four in Dr. Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.
Something to consider; Because of its authoritative source and saving content, Scripture is the very Word of the triune God.
- Scripture is from the Father’s utterance as its source.
- Scripture declares Christ’s person and work as its content and center.
- The source and content of Scripture attain their ends in the perfecting agency of the Spirit.
The unified work of the persons of the Trinity in Scripture’s inspired content and form may not be divided; accounts of inspiration are skewed or insufficient whenever the manner of one person’s working is given precedence over that of the other two.
HT: Dr. Michael Horton, Chapter Four in the The Christian Faith.