The One Only True & Living God

The One Only True & Living God

The unity of the divine essence states that what God is, only God is. This is a distinct, yet related, doctrine to that of the unity of the divine Persons, which states that the Persons are consubstantial with the divine essence. This latter doctrine flows from the former. Because God is one, creatures ought to worship Him and Him alone, and this one God subsists in three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The unity of the divine essence is paramount to the argument implied by the greatest commandment, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:4-5) The 17th century theologian and philosopher, Hugh Binning, once wrote, “Since God is one, then have no God but one, and that the true and living God, and this is the very first command of God, which flows as it were immediately from his absolute oneness and perfection of being.”

The unity of God grants sufficient reason for why this God is deserving of all honor, praise, and worship. The import of such doctrine is the Judaistical and Christian denial of pagan polytheism. Flowing from Deuteronomy 6:4 are other statements, such as what we find in Isaiah 45:14, “Thus says the Lord: ‘The labor of Egypt and merchandise of Cush And of the Sabeans, men of stature, Shall come over to you, and they shall be yours; They shall walk behind you, They shall come over in chains; And they shall bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying, “Surely God is in you, And there is no other; There is no other God.”’”

Incursions of henotheistic thought have made their way into churches, seminaries, and theological resources in recent decades. Henotheism is a species of polytheism, where many gods are said to be subject to one principal deity or supreme Being. Rather than being entirely equal, as with many Eastern polytheisms, henotheism teaches a hierarchy in the divine nature. Proponents of henotheism include the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse peoples. More recently, however, the late Dr. Michael Heiser has imbibed henotheistic thought. While maintaining monotheism in principle, Heiser defines monotheism as the belief in a “species unique” deity that presides over other divine beings or gods. In my opinion, this is virtually indistinguishable from the Greeks and Romans who saw Zeus or Jupiter, respectively, as the “king gods” who maintained sway over subjugated divine powers, such as Ares, Athena, or Mars. To adopt this position is to (inadvertently?) drink from the fountain of a fundamental metaphysical compromise, i.e. the expansion of “divine nature” to more than one being.

In other words, to grant a divine nature to beings other than YHWH is to grant that which belongs to YHWH alone.

In this brief post, I want to outline why this view represents a shift away from the clear biblical data that explains why Christians have always confessed only one true and living God.

Defining the Orthodox Position

A main point of confusion in this discussion involves the reality of beings that are often worshiped as gods by erring Israelites and pagan nations. What the orthodox position maintains is not that idols lack any real substance or beings that sit, as it were, behind them. Christians throughout the ages, following Scripture, have overtly affirmed the existence of real beings that are either worshiped directly or indirectly (through manufactured idols) as gods. As the apostle Paul notes, “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons.” (1 Cor. 10:20)

What is denied is that these spiritual beings habitually worshiped by the pagan peoples are actually “gods” or subordinate “Elohim.” We would, instead, want to say that these entities are “so-called” Elohim, but are not truly so. (1 Cor. 8:5) The Bible clearly states that there is only one true and living Elohim, “But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth will tremble, And the nations will not be able to endure His indignation.” (Jer. 10:10)

Credal and confessional theology is also clear that there is only one God. For example, the Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in one God…” And the 2LCF 2.1 states, “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection…” Furthermore, the Baptist Catechism asks, “Are there more gods than one?” answering, “There is but one only, the living and true God.” (Q. 8)

Are there real spiritual entities other than YHWH that are able to either positive or negatively influence the world? Yes. Are these entities gods? This we strongly deny.

Wrestling with the Biblical Language

Frequently left out of the discussion amongst those who affirm a plurality of gods in addition to YHWH is the element of linguistic device. It is important that we assume the biblical use of analogy, metaphor, and metonymy as we read our Bibles. If we do not make this assumption, we may come away thinking that God has a body, with anatomical limbs, etc., when we read passages as follows, “So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders…” (Ex. 3:20) Or, “with the blast of Your nostrils The waters were gathered together…” (Ex. 15:8) Because Scripture interprets Scripture, our reading of these texts must be conditioned by other Scriptural ontological statements, such as, “God is Spirit…” (Jn. 4:24) Or, “God is not a man, that He should lie…” (Num. 23:19) And again, “For I am the Lord, I do not change…” (Mal. 3:6) These passages help us to understand that when creaturely features are ascribed to God, they are ascribed not properly but by way of some improper linguistic device, e.g. analogy or metaphor.

Furthermore, we know that the Bible sometimes attributes divine language to things that are not divine. For example, “But where are your gods (Elohim) that you have made for yourselves?” (Jer. 2:28) Clearly, this text is calling manufactured idols “gods,” which are no gods at all. Other texts indicate the falsity of these feigned deities, such as, “Has a nation changed its gods, Which are not gods?” (Jer. 2:11) And, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols…” (Ps. 96:5) The biblical text denies the true existence of any other Elohim besides YHWH, “They will make supplication to you, saying, “‘Surely God is in you, And there is no other; There is no other God (Elohim).’” (Is. 45:14b) Benjamin Keach is helpful on the name “Elohim”:

His Hebrew name אלהיﬦ, Elohim, when taken properly, belongs to none, but the only true and eternal God, and because it is of the plural number, it intimates the mystery of a plurality of persons in one most simple Deity…”

See also Matthew Poole on Psalm 82,

By gods, or the mighty, he understands kings, or other chief rulers, who are so called, because they have their power and commission from God, and act as his deputies, in his name and stead, and must give an account to him of all their actions.

As we read the biblical text, we need to understand the way the Bible uses language. Scripture often speaks rhetorically, and by way of analogies and metaphors that are designed to make a deeper point. When Scripture speaks of God’s “arm” or “hand,” it means to convey not that God really has arms and hands, but that He is poised to exercise His might, either in judgment or redemption. Likewise, when Scripture speaks of the “gods,” it is using the language of the pagan peoples, oftentimes to set the reader up for a major contrast between these pretended deities and the only true and living God.

Why Henotheism?

So, why the modern interest in polytheistic henotheism?

The answer to this question continues to elude me. Assuming the best intentions, Heiser and others may have just missed the important piece of the interpretive puzzle in neglecting to observe linguistic devices employed by the divine Author. Another possible reason for the embrace of this view is a contemporary desire to “re-enchant” the universe. We live in a materialistic cultural rut that strives to remove any and all reference to the supernatural. Philosophical and scientific naturalism has stripped the world of its vibrant, spiritual excitement. But is this a good reason to adopt henotheism?

There appears to be a move toward a more colorful understanding of God’s creation. This is fine as far as it goes. And I am entirely in favor of recapturing a biblical and classical cosmology that assumes the influence of angels, the negative impact of demons, and so on. However, in our zeal to retrieve a more biblically faithful cosmology, we need to be cautious not to retrieve the pagan perversions of this cosmology often spoken of and condemned in the pages of Scripture. While the biblical record grants the real existence of “so-called” gods, or those who are called “gods” or “Elohim” by the pagan nations, we should stop short of granting to these beings what the Bible clearly reserves for God alone. “There is no God besides Me,” YHWH declares. (Is. 45:5) Imagine the delight of the demons if we granted them the status they so long for!

While it may be exciting for some to think of the universe as being under the sway of a multitude of deities, all of whom are in subjection to a “king God,” the reality stands that YHWH is the only true deity in existence. Alternatively, the classical Christian tradition offers a truly interesting cosmology, full of both holy angels and fallen angels, each of which fall under the supreme Lordship of the one true God. These angels are capable of a number of wondrous abilities, and all such beings are designed to lead us to fear and trust in the only true and living Elohim — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The reality of “principalities and powers” urges us to seek refuge in the only begotten Son our Lord, who for us and for our salvation was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and through His active and passive obedience defeated the powers of darkness and ordered the holy angels into the service of our redemption.

Conclusion

Why is any of this important?

In John 5:44, Jesus asks the question, “How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” The final two words of this sentence are, “μόνου Θεοῦ” (monou theou), from which we get the term “monotheism.” Taking theos to be the common New Testament translation of the Hebrew “Elohim,” we are able to see that our Lord Jesus Himself affirmed the “only-ness” and unity of God. Far beyond the bare theological musings of man, this biblical monotheism is the theology of our Savior. As disciples of Christ, may we follow Him not only in what He did, but also in what He affirmed theologically.

The City of God

The City of God

In the world vs. not of the world. Pilgrims here vs. citizens there. Living in the US vs. our home is heaven. Sojourning in the city of man; looking to the city of God.

In the 5th c., Augustine of Hippo penned his greatest work, The City of God. Some have even termed it as one of the most monumental and influential works within the entire Christian corpus of literature. Rome, the greatest empire the world had seen up to the 5th century, was falling. The Goths had just sacked the mother city, and unmanageable social and economic issues were prevailing over the once-mighty empire. In an empire that had become saturated with the Christian religion, Roman Christians needed guidance. They needed wise counsel—how were they to suffer the loss of this city of man while yet living as citizens of the city of God?

We live in an age that often causes us to wonder how long our city of man will last. The West faces issues uncannily similar to the moral, social, economic, and geopolitical challenges Rome faced in the 5th century. As such, we may be helped by retrieving the mind of Augustine for the sake of informing our 21st-century moment. We will look at three things that will hopefully help us understand our place in the world so that we can be encouraged even when the world does things we don’t want it to do.

We will look, first, at the city of man. Second, we will look at the city of God. And third, we will consider what it means to live in both at the same time as we no doubt do.

The City of Man

The city of man is characterized by three things: sin, suffering, and impermanence.

The origin of the city of man is the first — and thus fallen — creation. In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve, and He commanded them to “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it…” (Gen. 1:28) This is where God sanctioned the human community. And this human community was to fill the earth while worshiping and glorifying the Creator. This would have resulted not only in families, not only tribes but also in cities and nations. These cities and nations were to have God as their God with Adam as their intermediate or representational king.

But it didn’t go this way.

Adam sinned, and all his descendants sinned in him, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…” (Rom. 5:12) At the point of sin, however, this first creation didn’t disappear. The natural order didn’t just go away. It all remained intact through the mercy of God, though sin was now part of the picture. And this means that men would go on to form communities—families, villages, cities, etc. But all of these institutions would be infected with sin.

One of the first examples we might think of when we consider whole communities affected by sin is the Tower of Babel. There, we see a city full of sinful people in rebellion against God. So, we know humanity went forth after the fall and, in principle, tried to continue the dominion mandate—albeit in a fallen way. Humanity went forth from the fall onward trying to take dominion, trying to fill the earth, trying to subdue the earth—but never able to consummately succeed on account of sin.

If we take this whole situation—fallen man, effects of sin, suffering, impermanence, lack of success, etc.—and we summarize it in one term, it would be “the city of man.” This is how Augustine referred to it. He calls “the city of man,” “the earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule.”[1] (Emphasis added) The Bible refers to the city of man as impermanent. It doesn’t last. So, the writer of Hebrews says, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.” (Heb. 13:14)

The city of man is characterized by rebellion against God, suffering the effects of sin, and impermanence—it doesn’t last. And everything in this city of man will one day fade. Look how the apostle Paul characterizes the temporary nature of suffering in this city of man, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…” (2 Cor. 4:17)

The Christian is in a unique position because, at present, the Christian lives in both cities — the city of man and the city of God. The Christian experiences sin, suffering, and impermanence. But the Christian also experiences grace, joy, peace, and righteousness in the Holy Spirit — things that will never pass away, things that characterize the city of God. Things that only God can give. The city of man is the present moral order of man generally. It began at the first creation but was plunged into sin by the first Adam. It is comprised of unbelief, active rebellion against God, suffering, and temporary things that will not last. That’s the city of man. It’s bleak. But the Bible tells us of something better — a city of God, whose builder and maker is God.

The City of God

If the city of man is characterized by sin, suffering, and impermanence, then the city of God is characterized by righteousness, happiness, and eternity.

Scripture speaks of the city of God in several places. In the book of Revelation, it’s called the New Jerusalem. In the book of Hebrews, it’s called the city “whose builder and maker is God.” In Revelation 3:12, we read, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name.” And, at the end of Revelation, in ch. 21, we read, “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” So, here the city of God bookends the whole book of Revelation because John is encouraging his audience — the seven churches — with an eternal destiny, life in the city of God.

In Hebrews, the project is similar. There, the author is encouraging his audience to remain faithful to the end because, after all, there is no lasting city here — we look to another

In Hebrews 11, we see that the Old Testament saints were likewise looking for this city of God, “for [Abraham] waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (v. 10) In Hebrews 12:22, it’s called the “heavenly Jerusalem,” “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” In Hebrews 13:14, it is written, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.” And this is our encouragement to follow Christ outside the camp, bearing His reproach. (v. 12)

In Galatians 4, Paul speaks of the city of God, or the heavenly Jerusalem, “the Jerusalem above.” Contrasting the earthly city and the heavenly city, Paul writes:

For these (Hagar & Sarah) are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Gal. 4:24-26)

Notice the difference between the two cities. It corresponds to what we’ve said about the city of man and the city of God. The city of man is characterized by sin and suffering, i.e. bondage. But the city of God is characterized by liberty in Christ, joy, and glory, i.e. it is free.

Augustine, commenting on Paul’s words here, says:

This interpretation of the passage, handed down to us with apostolic authority, shows how we ought to understand the Scriptures of the two covenants — the old and the new. One portion of the earthly city became an image of the heavenly city, not having a significance of its own, but signifying another city, and therefore serving, or “being in bondage.”[2]

The old Jerusalem, the one we know on earth, the earthly city, prefigures the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God. The earthly city, fallen in sin, subject to suffering, and various forms of heartache, was a type that looked forward to the other and greater heavenly city, the heavenly Jerusalem — whose builder and maker is God.

Augustine is writing to Christians who were converted out of the Roman Empire. And the occasion is the sacking of the city of Rome by the Goths. Rome is falling. Augustine takes this two-city image and uses it to essentially say, “As a Christian, your meaning, your significance, your identity was never tied up entirely with Rome. You belong to a greater city. You look to a greater city.”

We know from Hebrews 11 that Old Testament saints looked to this heavenly city. We see glimpses of that in places like Psalm 48, where the Psalmist writes, “Beautiful in elevation, The joy of the whole earth, Is Mount Zion on the sides of the north, The city of the great King.” (v. 2) And in v. 8, “As we have heard, So we have seen In the city of the LORD of hosts, In the city of our God: God will establish it forever.”

The city of God is the new world to which God has saved His people through Jesus Christ. And this means that the church — Christ’s people — represents this city in the here and now. Christ’s people live in both the city of man and the city of God at present.

Living in Both Cities

City of man. City of God. As Christians, we have one foot in each.

In His high priestly prayer to the Father, Jesus says, “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You.” (Jn. 17:11) Jesus was once in the world, and His people remain in the world. But then, in v. 16, He says, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” Christ’s people are in the world (in the city of man), but they are not of the world (not of the city of man).

While the church lives here, it is not ultimately from here. Remember, though we were naturally born into this world, into the city of man, we have been born again as Christians. And in this new birth, we are born into the city of God and are thus from the city of God, as Paul says — “but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Gal. 4:26) Though we live in the city of man, following the new birth, we are no longer of (or from) the city of man. We have been born of the city of God. We have been made a new creature in the new creation, whose capital city is the city of the living, triune God.

What does all of this mean?

Christians have been through a lot over the last 2,000 years. The first time Christians had to struggle with the tension between living in the city of man on the one hand and living in the city of God on the other is, perhaps, the looming destruction of Jerusalem between the years 66 – 70 AD. At this time, if they hadn’t known it before, the Jewish converts to Christ learned that their home was not earthly Jerusalem — they were to look for something more sure, lasting, and stable. As they left earthly Jerusalem for Pella, they illustrated their true hope in real-time. They had to come to terms with the fact that their “home” wasn’t ultimately their home.

But the second major instance in which Christians had to wrestle with living in the city of man and the city of God was during the fall of Rome. It’s the 5th c., Rome has just been attacked by the Goths (pagans), and everything they had known on this earth up to that point was falling apart. Some other times when Christians were forced to deal with this tension would be the Holocaust, when Jewish Christians were persecuted by the Nazis, forced from homes, loved ones, etc.; or the Armenian genocide when the Ottoman Empire murdered probably over a million Armenian Christians in the early 1900s.

The question in the minds of Christians should always be, “How do I live in the city of God even when the city of man is falling apart?” Even in times of prosperity, we should consider this question. How is Hebrews 13:14 real for us? “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”

Here’s how: We trust Christ. We grow in our love for Him. And we labor to know what both of those things mean. Hebrews 13:14a admonishes us, “let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.” Do we trust Him to follow Him away from the city of man as it’s destroyed by sin, death, and the devil?

Or, like Lot’s wife, will we be so attached to the comforts and pleasantries of the city of man that we look back?

As a church, who are we? Are we an outpost of the city of God in this world? Or are we just another organization in and of the city of man? Could we continue our worship if the city of man went away tomorrow? If everything we knew faded into history, could we still be a church—constant, remaining, set upon the Rock, identified by that heavenly, unshaking city of God?

Resources:

[1] Augustine, Saint. The Complete Works of Saint Augustine: The Confessions, On Grace and Free Will, The City of God, On Christian Doctrine, Expositions on the Book Of Psalms, … (50 Books With Active Table of Contents) (p. 58). Kindle Edition.

[2] Augustine, The City of God … (50 Books With Active Table of Contents) (p. 615). Kindle Edition.

The Term “Reformed”: A Hill to Die On?

The Term “Reformed”: A Hill to Die On?

Whether Baptists are called “Reformed” or not isn’t something self-professing Reformed Baptists ought to be willing to die over. 

The term is inconsequential to the substance of our theology as long as “Reformed Baptist” means a confessing Baptist subscribing to the Second London Confession (1677). This is, after all, everything that is usually meant by the term “Reformed Baptist.” Some utilize the term more broadly, describing Baptists who believe in the more basic doctrines of grace or the five points of Calvinism. The point here is that the term “Reformed” has come to signify Baptists who, like the designers of the Confession, find “hearty agreement” with their Westminster Reformed brethren “in that wholesome Protestant doctrine which, with so clear evidence of Scriptures, they have asserted.”

Still, some holdouts believe the term “Reformed” is improperly applied to Baptists altogether, identifying the term “Reformed” with belief in infant baptism. No matter how much agreement Baptists have with the Westminster Confession of Faith, rejection of infant baptism along with distinct covenant theology and ecclesiology is enough to disqualify them from properly applying the term “Reformed” to themselves. Take, for example, R. Scott Clark’s blog post from 2022, “There Is No Credo Baptist Heidelberg Catechism or Why Hercules Collins Was Not Reformed.” In this article, he writes:

For some years I have complained about Baptist squatters in the Reformed house. These are those Baptists who insist on re-defining the adjective Reformed. As it turns out, however, this habit of squatting is not new at all. Indeed, one of the earliest examples occurred in 1680.[1]

In the above-quoted article, Clark attempts to make the point that the term “Reformed” is functionally reducible to the practice of infant baptism, a la. the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). But I want to argue that this wrangling over words isn’t helpful for the advancement of confessional and even pastoral theology. (1 Tim. 6:4) In this article, I would like to give a few reasons why some sectors of this debate are not helpful while showing how Baptists, if they so choose, can use the term “Reformed” without the worry of applying a misnomer.

Reason #1: Clark’s Argument Can Be Equally Applied to His Own Position From the Perspective of Other Traditions

Surely, a Roman Catholic could accuse Clark—and with him the entirety of the Westminsterian tradition—of committing the same error in his use of the term “paedobaptist.” The Westminster Confession and Savoy Declaration are nearly alone in their affirmations of a paedobaptism that does not result in regeneration. Even other Protestant traditions, such as Lutheranism, affirm a kind of baptismal regeneration. Neither the WCF nor the Savoy Declaration do this. The Westminster paedobaptists are, therefore, unique in their handling of the “first sacrament” from a paedobaptist perspective.

The argument, then, from the perspective of Rome—along with the Lutherans (and perhaps some Anglicans)—might go something like this: Since your baptism neither formally nor necessarily entails the regeneration of its subjects, it is not the same baptism as ours in substance. Therefore, you espouse a different baptism than that which is stated in Ephesians 4:5, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism…”

In principle, they would be using Clark’s own argument against him. He, and the entirety of the Westminster/Savoy tradition, are “squatters” when it comes to their appropriation of “paedobaptism.” A possible retort might be that those paedobaptists were in error, and the Westminster tradition thus represented a biblically-based reform. But then, why couldn’t Baptists say the same thing? It could simply be the case that the Baptist position, as represented in the 2LCF 1677, presents a further reform, and thus constitutes a reformed position. After all, as Baptists, we reject both infant baptism and baptismal regeneration. And we see this as a correction or reform of the incorrect sacramentology of the paedobaptist tradition.

Reason #2: Words Change in Their Usage Over Time

If Clark is comfortable with changing the meaning of “paedobaptism,” he should have no issue with Baptists seeking to revise the meaning of the term “Reformed.” I have no issue with the Westminster reform of the doctrine of baptism away from the Romish notion of baptismal regeneration. This was, in my estimation, a step in the right direction. But it also means that we need to recognize the reality of diachronic change in terms. Definitional diachrony examines how terms have evolved in their usage through (dia-) time. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one of the most famous examples of a diachronic dictionary.[2] In a 1977 edition of the OED, one reads the entry on the term “Reformed” as follows:

Of religion, churches, etc.; Brought to a better or purer state by the removal of errors or abuses, esp. those imputed to the Church of Rome…. The name of Reformed Church(es) sometimes includes all the Protestant churches, and sometimes is specifically restricted to the Calvinistic bodies as contrasted with the Lutherans.[3]

Dates where the term is variably used are 1563, 1588, 1646, and 1772. In the 1646 usage, “The French Protestants would make no scruple to submit to it…, had they a King of the Reform’d Religion.” The idea of a monarch supporting a particular denomination of Christians runs against the grain of Westminster Confession, ch. 23, “…it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest…” Applying Clark’s angle to the disparity between the French Protestant usage of the term and that WCF, we might conclude the WCF isn’t reformed! In 1741, the “Reformed Church is again divided into the Lutheran Church, the Calvinist Church, the Church of England, etc…” Yet, on Clark’s website, the Heidelblog.net, he omits the Lutheran Augsburg Confession and the Anglican 39 Articles under his page linking to various Reformed confessions

Who, then, is misappropriating the term? R. Scott Clark or history itself?

This isn’t a problem for those of us who are willing to recognize the fungibility of linguistic definitions, i.e. diachrony. This is what the OED seeks to catalog. In light of the evolution of terms, it seems fallacious to reduce the term “Reformed” to the Westminster practice of infant baptism. Especially when the Westminster tradition does the same thing with terms recovered from Rome, like “baptism,” “synod,” “catholicity,” etc. History demonstrates that the term “Reformed” has been used more or less broadly than a mere denomination of Westminster Christianity.

Given the etymology of the term “Reformed,” if contemporary Baptists find its application useful for distinguishing confessional and Calvinistic Baptist churches from non-confessional and non-Calvinistic Baptist churches, why hinder this utility, especially if this practice goes back as far as the 17th century (as Clark noted above)? On a pastoral note, when it comes to novices in the faith, we need to be especially careful about our particularities so that we do not violate Paul’s rule in Romans 14:1, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.”

Reason #3: The Word “Reformed” Shouldn’t Matter That Much

This isn’t to say it doesn’t matter. It does. But in terms of a word integral to one’s doctrinal commitments, it’s not that significant. This is because the term existed as a general adjective before its appropriation in the 16th and 17th centuries by Protestant Calvinists, perhaps dating to the 1340s. The term “reformed” could apply to anything. Lexically, it simply means, “to form again,” or “the amendment or altering for the better.”[4] A rod of iron is “reformable” if it is bent out of shape. Therefore, if Baptists perceive themselves to be a more perfectly amended theological tradition, then the term properly applies according to its lexicography.

According to a recent post by “Jules Diner” on X, which Clark re-posted, “Baptists insisting that they’re Reformed (they’re not) is not altogether unlike men insisting that they’re women… Their argument boils down to, ‘It’s how we identify and we don’t care what you think the word means!” Well, we do care what Jules and Clark think about what the term “Reformed” means. But we respectfully disagree with their a-historical restriction of the term to Westminster paedobaptism.

Furthermore, if Baptists co-opting the term “Reformed” is akin to the identity politics of the transgender movement (a ridiculous suggestion), then so is Clark’s appropriation of the term “paedobaptism.” What is more, Clark approvingly uses terms like “catholicity” on his website (see here). If Clark identifies as a “catholic” is he not squatting on Rome’s territory like trans persons squat on the territory of the opposite sex? If a Romanist followed Clark’s line of thought, it seems like they could make this argument with about as much validity.

Conclusion

Before we kick up a bunch of dust over a simple word, a simple caution, if I may: Baptists shouldn’t trouble themselves over the term “Reformed.” It’s not a big enough deal. Though it comes with some utility for our current moment in theological history (a utility I wanted to justify in this post), our Baptist tradition does not live or die by a single adjective. We may as well call ourselves “Particular Baptists,” or “Confessional Baptists,” or even “Sovereign Grace Baptists.” Each of these terms may be helpful in various ways. And truly, wrangling over such a word only does tender consciences harm upon final analysis. To make the historical and theological argument is one thing, but to defame each other over adjectives seems… harsh.

Resources:

[1] R. Scott Clark, “There Is No Credo Baptist Heidelberg Catechism or Why Hercules Collins Was Not Reformed,” 2022, https://heidelblog.net/2022/07/there-is-no-credo-baptist-heidelberg-catechism-or-why-hercules-collins-was-not-reformed/.

[2] Judy Pearsall, “Diachronic and Synchronic English Dictionaries,” in The Cambridge Companion to English Dictionaries, 2020, https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/abs/cambridge-companion-to-english-dictionaries/diachronic-and-synchronic-english-dictionaries/BD8E174AFD4AF4C45C59C15B67AA1060.

[3] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1977, 2466.

[4] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1977, 2465.

My Bible vs. Our Bible

My Bible vs. Our Bible

Most of us have multiple Bibles positioned strategically (or not) throughout our homes. When we need a new one, we drive down the street to Mardel or click “Buy Now” on Amazon. Or, if you’re fancy, you might shell out the cash for a Schuyler on evangelicalBible.com. We make the purchase, and a copy of God’s Word becomes our possession.

This is one of the privileges of living on the other side of the 15th century, when the printing press was invented; and on this side of the Industrial Revolution, when mass production of just about any product became normal. Christians living before Gutenberg weren’t so fortunate. For them, just about everything they knew about the Bible came through someone they trusted, a priest or bishop, or perhaps an educated seminary professor. The communal aspect of reading and following God’s Word was integral to their identity as Christians. They could not know the Word apart from their relationship with other people.

This is not the case for us. We can pick up one of our many copies of God’s Word and read it by ourselves anytime we’d like. We can listen to the Bible while driving to work. And we can scroll through the Bible on our iPhones. While all of this convenience comes with numerous advantages we rightly relish, there is a drawback. This drawback can be overcome, even while maintaining the unique privileges we have in this age. But if it is to be overcome, we need to be aware of it.

The Bible Is Given by God to the Church

First, I want you to try and put yourself in the shoes of a pre-modern Christian.

You live from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. You are devoutly committed to your local church. And you commune with the saints regularly. You do not own a single Bible. The available codices are reserved for monks and missionaries, but not a commoner such as yourself. Everything you know about the Bible has been read to you by someone else. And you’ve been able to memorize a great deal. The words that you do know from Scripture are more precious to you than gold and rarer to you than jewels. You credit the possession of such treasure to the community you gather with week in and week out. Your church explains your survival. As a result, you see your church as a real lifeline. It’s vital. The only Bible you’ve ever seen is at your church. The pastor reads from it every Lord’s Day, and it was produced over the course of a year by a band of monks in a scriptorium a week’s ride from where you live.

It’s the church’s Bible.

On the Lord’s Day, when you attend church, that same Bible is visible at the front of the sanctuary. It never leaves the building. It is the people’s Bible. It might even be said that no one in your village would even know a single verse from Scripture if it weren’t for that one hand-copied Bible at your church. It is read in community, formative of the community, and understood by the community.

Okay, we can stop imagining. By now, I’m sure you get the picture.

It would be very difficult to individualize God’s Word in a society like the one described above. For the pre-modern saint, God’s Word was “our Bible,” not “my Bible.” Not only is this the case historically, but it’s also the case biblically. All of the epistles in the New Testament, even those originally addressed to individuals, e.g. Titus, Timothy, and Philemon (cf. Phil. 2), were intended for the church. The church is tasked with stewarding the Word of God and administering the Word of God through preaching and teaching. On several occasions, apostles Paul and John address “the church” in their epistles.

In 1 Corinthians 1:2, we read, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours…” This epistle is given to the church of Corinth, narrowly. But it is given to the whole church more broadly. In 2 Corinthians 1:1 we see similar language, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in Achaia…” In 1 Thessalonians 1:1, we read again, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…” And once more in 2 Thessalonians 1:1, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”

The apostle John, in 2 John 9, writes, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us.” In 2 John 1, John addresses “the elect lady and her children,” which is likely a metonymy for the church.

The Bible is given to the church. While this was more culturally obvious before the printing press and the mass production of Bibles, it is a conviction we can and should retrieve even while enjoying our technological advantages. Just because we have “our” Bibles (a blessing to be sure), doesn’t mean we should think of the Bible as belonging preeminently to “me.” It is God’s revelation given to “us,” God’s people, God’s church.

Communal Language in Scripture & Early Creeds

The Lord’s Prayer situates the subject within a communal context. In other words, the person who prays prays with his fellow saints. Look at the first line: “Our Father in heaven…” It begins with the first person, plural, personal pronoun, “Our…” Our Lord assumed His church would pray prayers like this one together. Similarly, the Scriptures themselves were to be read to churches. In 1 Thessalonians 5:27, Paul writes, “I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read to all the holy brethren.”

The Nicene Creed follows this communal aspect of the Holy Scripture. It begins as such…

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

The Athanasian Creed begins in a similar fashion…

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.

The Chalcedonian Definition likewise includes corporate language. It begins as such, “Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all unite in teaching that we should confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Both Scripture and the ancient church following the 1st generation of Christians emphasized the communal structure of the Christian faith. The faith, along with the Scriptures from which it derives, belongs to the church and not to any individual or rogue Bible-interpreter.

Scriptural Abuses and Interpretational Accountability

I do not have the right to do whatever I want with the Bible.

One of the major issues with the Romish papacy is that it individualizes God’s Word at the highest political level. The pope, along with the college of bishops, have supreme authority to interpret the Bible. Historical interpretation aside, the small, elite class at the top gets to set the interpretive standard. Unfortunately, in our day, the “prerogative” of the pope has been assumed by pastors and lay people alike. “Me and my Bible” has become the arbiter of biblical meaning for many. Which is to say, it is now in vogue for many to think of themselves as self-made popes!

Though I may have the civil right to do anything I want with the leather and paper that make up my copy of the Bible, the substance of God’s Word is curated and interpreted by a Spirit-filled community, not by any single individual or elite class at the top. And while we must all come to our own conclusions as to what we believe the Bible means, this should not be done apart from the fellowship we have with other Christians, both dead and living. If the Holy Spirit works in me and you, He has worked in other Christians as well.

Since Scripture was and is given to the church and not to any one person, Christians must labor to understand and interpret Scripture within the context of that churchly community — a community of Spirit-enlivened saints.

Once we understand this, we are dutifully bound to humbly submit ourselves to the accountability provided by the “chorus of saints.” (Prov. 11:14; Rom. 12:16) Furthermore, once we grasp the Bible as the church’s book, we are liberated from the modernist burden of feeling as though we need to chart our own orthodoxy or re-invent the theological wheel. God’s people have been plundering the Scriptures for 2,000 years, and we are privileged to ride their coattails. This doesn’t imply a blind reception of any and every theological opinion. But it does mean that the theology and practice of the many, as represented in documents such as creeds and confessions, should hold more sway in our hearts and minds than any novel opinion offered within the last couple centuries.

Conclusion

Is it your Bible? Or is it our Bible?

While in a sense it is your Bible (you own a copy, and all the promises therein apply to you through Jesus Christ), it nevertheless belongs to the one body of Jesus Christ. This realization does two basic things. First, it keeps us accountable to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit works in others beside ourselves. Second, it frees us from the burden of thinking of ourselves as “developers” of new, shiny theological constructs. When accountability is shrugged off for the “new,” and when theological innovation becomes the norm souls are hurt and Scripture is abused.

Scripture is “our” Bible. The saints are united in the interpretational task, and Christ is glorified where His saints dwell with one mind concerning the meaning of the text.

Abraham Booth on the Incarnation of the Son

Abraham Booth on the Incarnation of the Son

The “extra calvinisticum” is a fancy name for a proper understanding of the incarnation of the Son. If kenotic Christology suggests a conversion of deity into humanity (in some sense or other), the extra calvinisticum pronounces the full integrity of both divine and human natures united in the one Person of the Son, “without conversion, composition, or confusion…” (2LCF 8.2) The extra calvinisticum enjoys a rich reception by Baptists, both general and particular.

We could name several of our forerunners who affirmed this doctrine, from Benjamin Keach to John Gill and others. Indeed, it would be safe to say that the Christology of the Baptist movement falls right in line with that of Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers, and the post-Reformation Puritans. The extra calvinisticum is simply a designation for a biblically orthodox and creedal article of faith that has existed throughout the ages. Baptists find themselves within this wider Christological tradition.

One such Baptist was the 18th century English pastor-theologian, Abraham Booth (c. 1734-1806). But before we get to Booth, we need to understand why his theology is important in the present moment.

Contemporary Christological Issues

In Sunday School, many of us learned simply that “Jesus is God and He became a man for our salvation” (or something like that). It’s a wonderful truth to be sure. But we live in a theologically imprecise season, and statements like the above have been taken in different directions that regularly depart from the orthodox formulation of the doctrine of Christ. To be sure, that simple Sunday School saying is completely orthodox, and while we could qualify some of the terms, there is nothing wrong with the words as they sit. It’s true as far as it goes — Jesus is God and became a man for our salvation. Yet, because of theological imprecision and malnourished theological training and teaching — within seminaries and churches — the word “become” has taken on some other-than-desirable connotations.

It’s now almost commonplace to assume the Son of God left some of His God-ness behind when He “became” man. Kenotic Christology has apparently become a normal assumption among the laity of Christ’s church. Sometimes the incarnation is described in terms of Jesus “leaving behind” some of His divine attributes. Sometimes it’s described as a period wherein the Son ceases to operate according to certain “divine prerogatives.” On a more extreme end of the spectrum, the Son may even be said to transform from deity into humanity. All of this is kenotic language, to one extent or another. But kenotic Christology is not what Scripture teaches, nor is it what our Protestant, baptistic forerunners have believed.

This is why Abraham Booth becomes relevant for us today. He was a clear Baptist proponent of the orthodox doctrine of the extra calvinisticum.

Abraham Booth’s Christology

In the recent reprint of The Works of Abraham Booth (vol. 1), we find rich Christological discourse, predominantly in chapter eleven, titled, ‘Concerning the Person of Christ by Whom Grace Reigns.’ In that chapter, Booth unequivocally affirms the hypostatic union. He writes:

It was absolutely necessary also, that our Mediator and Surety should be God as well as man. For as he could neither have obeyed, nor suffered, if he had not possessed a created nature; so, had he been a mere man, however immaculate, he could not have redeemed one soul. Nay, though he had possessed the highest possible created excellencies, they would not have been sufficient; because he would still have been a dependent being. For as it is essential to Deity, to be underived and self-existent, so it is essential to a creature to be derived and dependent. The loftiest seraph that sings in glory is as really dependent on God, every moment of his existence, as the meanest worm that crawls. In this respect, an angel and an insect are on a level.[1]

What a wonderful statement!

The one Person of the Son is both very God and very man. In the Person of Christ, two natures are perfectly united without “conversion, composition, or confusion…” (2LCF 8.2) By affirming this orthodox article of the hypostatic union, Booth lays the foundation for avoiding just about every variety of kenotic Christology, especially those which remain on today’s smorgasbord of confusion. But he further strengthens his position when discussing the distinction among the Persons in the Godhead. He writes:

Agreeably to this distinction, we behold the rights of Deity asserted and vindicated, with infinite majesty and authority, in the Person of the Father; while we view every divine perfection displayed and honoured, in the most illustrious manner, by the amazing condescension of the Eternal Son—By the humiliation of him who, in his lowest state of subjection could claim equality with God.—Such being the dignity of our wonderful Sponsor, it was by his own voluntary condescension that he became incarnate, and took upon him the form of a servant.[2]

Here lies a strong affirmation of the extra calvinisticum, that Christ while “in his lowest state of subjection could claim equality with God…” Booth also seems to cut against the grain of contemporary subordinationist theories as well. For “every divine perfection” was “displayed and honoured” in the “condescension of the Eternal Son…” And, this “Eternal Son” was “no way obliged” to perform “obedience in our stead…” If the Father’s authority was in the Father alone (at least to a greater degree than is in the Son), the Son would have been obliged to obey. Booth, however, avoids this notion. He goes on to discuss reasons the hypostatic union was necessary:

That it was necessary our Surety should be God and man, in unity of person. This necessity arises from the nature of his work; which is that of a mediator between God, the offended sovereign, and man, the offending subject. If he has not been a partaker of the divine nature, he could not have been qualified to treat with God; if not of the human, he would not have been fitted to treat with man. Deity alone was too high to treat with man; humanity alone was too low to treat with God. The eternal Son therefore assumed our nature, that he might become a middle person; and so be rendered capable of laying his hands upon both, and of bringing them into a state of perfect friendship.[3]

For Christ to be qualified to “treat with God” He must Himself be God. For Christ to be qualified to stand before God on behalf of man, He must Himself be man. Booth grounds the necessity of complete divine and human natures united in the one Person of Christ based on what the work of redemption requires. We might say that if Christ is not all God, even in His state of humiliation, His humiliation wouldn’t mean anything. Likewise, if Christ is not all man, there is no sense in which He could be humiliated (since God never changes).

Conclusion

Abraham Booth, along with many other Baptists from yesteryear, provide us with rich historical precedence for classical doctrines such as the extra calvinisticum. A reading of Booth and other 17th and 18th century Baptists, e.g. Benjamin Keach and John Gill, would reveal that the majority report in today’s (even Reformed) Baptist circles concerning the doctrine of God and the incarnation of the Son is not the historical norm. But more constructively, Baptists such as Booth provide plenty of Scriptural and historical food for pastors attempting to lead their flocks to the cool, clear waters of Christian orthodoxy.

Tolle lege.

Resources:

[1] Abraham Booth, The Works of Abraham Booth, vol. 1, (Knightstown, IN: Particular Baptist Heritage Books, 2022), 334-35.

[2] Booth, Works, vol. 1, 336.

[3] Booth, Works, vol. 1, 337-38.