Confessional Baptist Ecclesiology (Part I)

Confessional Baptist Ecclesiology (Part I)

The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. (Hebrews 12:23; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23; Ephesians 5:23, 27, 32)

~ The Second London Baptist Confession (1677), 26.1 ~

In Matthew 16:18 Jesus tells Peter, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Statements such as this one, and others like it, led the 17th century London Baptists to maintain the conviction that there is one church, the bride and body of the Lord Jesus Christ which He secured with His blood. “The catholic or universal church… (26.1),” as our Baptist predecessors called it, is a doctrine surrounded by no small amount of controversy. The controversy largely centers on the misuse of the doctrine by the Roman Catholic Church, though it has suffered confusion since the 4th to 5th centuries. However, the perversion of a doctrine should not lead us to conclude the doctrine itself is false. Good doctrine has suffered much abuse. Examples include but are not limited to the Trinity (cf. John Biddle’s confession), Christology (Arius), and soteriology (Pelagius). But these doctrines ought not be rejected outrightly simply because they’ve been misused by sinners! If misuse were the measurement of what is true or false, there would be no Christianity left.

Returning to Matthew 16:18, Jesus came to secure, establish, and continue a building project. The bride of Christ did not appear in the first century absolutely, as if there were no bride previously. The body of Christ are all those who are united to the Lord Jesus Christ and are, thus, His members. This body comprises both Old Testament and New Testament saints, and has sojourned under various covenants since the time of Adam. In Colossians 1:24, Paul writes, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church…” And in Ephesians 5:25-27, we read, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” The church achieves such permanency in the mind of Paul so as to secure a place as the very object of our Lord’s atoning work. He “gave Himself for her.”

John Gill, commenting on Ephesians 5:25, says this church is “his bride and spouse, whom he betrothed to himself from all eternity, the Father having given her to him; and is no other than the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven, even all the elect of God. Ver. 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it, &c.”[1] Matthew 16:18 probably serves as one of the fundamental teachings set forth by Jesus upon which the apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, further develop the doctrine of the one church. If this is true, it would be prudent to make a few observations that might further bolster the confessional Baptist conception of the universal (or catholic) church.

Christ Builds One Church

Historically, Baptists have confessed the one or universal church of Christ simply because the text demands it. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promises to build His church. This is a singular usage of the term ekklesia, and thus demands a more robust understanding of the church of Christ not entirely reducible to particular or local bodies. The church Jesus speaks of here has its genesis in His own sufferings, death, and resurrection. To reduce the church to a particular local church neglects this two-millennia-old institution, especially since local churches rise and fall regularly. Most are started and ended within half a century or less. Some churches are planted spontaneously and are not planted from a previously constituted church. This was the case in the 17th century. The Jacob-Lathrop-Jesse church (JLJ church) was not planted from a previously constituted Baptist church, yet was nevertheless a true church.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus employs the singular or the universal/abstract term ekklesia and promises the continuance of its construction from Pentecost onward by the power of His Holy Spirit. As Gill notes above, this church just is the fullness of the Lord’s elect.

Jesus Possesses This Church

This church is defined, in part, by Jesus’ special possession of it. This is His church. “I will build My church…” He says. He does not say, “I will build My churches…” albeit the existence of local churches is inevitably implied. If ecclesiology were indeed reducible to the local church, one would expect Jesus to reflect such a reduction in the employment of the plural form, ekklesias. As it is, He employs the singular which universalizes the concept. Jesus does not possess several churches, brides, or bodies, He possesses a single church that instantiates in the visible institution of local churches throughout time and across the globe, as we will hopefully discover in a later installment within this series.

The Meaning of Ekklesia

The term often translated to “church,” but is perhaps more woodenly translated to “assembly,” means a “gathering of citizens.”[2] While local assemblies are a concrete and experiential picture of this larger citizenry, the term ekklesia is by no means restricted to local assemblies circumscribed by geographical nearness. It rather has connotations consistent with national assembly, a theme picked up by the apostle Peter, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light… (1 Pet. 2:9).” This assembly exists on earth and in heaven, that those who’ve preceded us “should not be made perfect apart from us (Heb. 11:40).” Such is implied by Paul when he appeals to our heavenly, mother-Jerusalem, “but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).”

The term ekklesia is also linked to the “household of God” in Ephesians 2:19-22, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” The same term in Matthew 16:18 (oikodomeo) is utilized here in Ephesians 2, albeit in the aorist tense this time. Furthermore, 1 Timothy 3:15 explicitly identifies the “house of God” with the church, “I write to you so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God…”

The English translation of the word ekklesia to “church” is apparently the result of theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS). The English word “church” finds the start of its etymology in the Greek term for “of the Lord” (kuriakon) with “house” (doma). From the Greek, such was translated in Dutch to kerk, finding its German counterpart in the term kirche. It eventually ends up in the old English as cirice. The interpretative translation seemingly occurred in light of the church’s Biblical identification as the “house of God,” or the “house of the LORD.”

As mentioned above, in 1 Timothy 3:15, the “house of God” is the church of the living God. Such language is almost certainly carried over from Old Testament temple language. In 2 Chronicles 2:3, Solomon writes to Hiram, saying, “As you have dealt with David my father, and sent him cedars to build himself a house to dwell in, so deal with me. Behold, I am building a temple for the name of the LORD my God, to dedicate it to Him, to burn before Him sweet incense, for the continual showbread, for the burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths, on the New Moons, and on the set feasts of the LORD our God. This is an ordinance forever to Israel.” According to the Hebrew, the same idea, i.e. “house,” is clearly conveyed here. The Septuagint rendering of 2 Chronicles 2:3 even uses the same term used for “house” in 1 Timothy 3:15, i.e. oiko.

A further parallel exists in the fact that the temple had pillars and a foundation, both of which are attributed to the church of the living God. In 1 Kings 7:15, we read, “And he cast two pillars of bronze, each one eighteen cubits high, and a line of twelve cubits measured the circumference of each.” And 2 Chronicles 3:3 says, “This is the foundation which Solomon laid for building the house of God: The length was sixty cubits (by cubits according to the former measure) and the width twenty cubits.” See Revelation 3 for “pillar” language applied to members of Christ’s church.

The New Testament is replete with language identifying the church with the temple of our God, “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are (1 Cor. 3:17).” And, “And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God (2 Cor. 6:16).” Speaking to the church, Jesus says, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more (Rev. 3:12).”

The Old Testament continually links the temple with the presence of God. In fact, the entire significance of the temple was wrapped up in it serving as the special dwelling place of God. And following the finished work of Christ revealed in the New Testament, we learn that the house/temple of God is the church in which God dwells. It is this presence of God which makes the church the temple of the living God. Where the Spirit of God dwells, there is the temple of God, as seems to be basically assumed by the Scriptures themselves. God dwelt in His tabernacle, “So I will consecrate the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. I will also consecrate both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me as priests. I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the LORD their God (Ex. 29:44-46).” First Corinthians 3:16 makes this same association, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

Ezekiel 47 seems to have a multinational scope, since “everything will live wherever the river goes (v. 9b).” The land allotment appears to be larger than that originally promised to Abraham and conquered by Joshua. The land of rest will spill beyond Israel’s then-current borders into Gentile territory. Revelation 21:16 makes the New Jerusalem multinational in scope, since it far surpasses the bounds of the Old Testament promised land, “The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. Its length, breadth, and height are equal.” Twelve-thousand furlongs equate to 1500 miles. The New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 is cubic in structure, and therefore represents an expansion of the holy of holies, not only beyond the Old Testament temple grounds, but beyond the borders of national Israel. If antecedent New Testament revelation is allowed to be utilized in our interpretation of Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem, or the New Holy of Holies, is the church of the living God. The New Testament could not be clearer that the church is God’s dwelling place, and is therefore the New Covenant temple. In such a light, Revelation 21:16 apparently understands the temple/church as a single entity that transcends geographical and politico-national barriers.


There are several other observations we could make that would further the point of a Baptist doctrine of the universal church. That Christ’s bride must be one, that His body must be singular, etc. could all be used as supporting evidence for this doctrine of the universal church. In the following installment, I will work to distinguish the confessional Baptist doctrine of the catholic church from that of other ecclesiological traditions.


[1] Gill, John. John Gill’s Exposition on the Entire Bible-Book of Ephesians. Graceworks Multimedia. Kindle Edition. Loc. 2417.

[2] Thayer, J. H. (1889). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti (pp. 195–196). Harper & Brothers.

Reformed Hermeneutics with William Whitaker

Reformed Hermeneutics with William Whitaker

William Whitaker is a key figure preceding the Westminster Assembly. Much of his language appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith and, consequently, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677). He is a contextual voice regarding confessional hermeneutics making him a trustworthy source in discerning what the Protestant Reformed hermeneutic looked like in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

The below transcript has been taken from A Disputation on Holy Scripture, Titus Books. Kindle Edition. Loc. 5906-5946. The wording as it appears in that volume has been preserved below.

The Jesuit divides all these senses into two species; the historic or literal, and the mystic or spiritual. He defines the historic or literal, as that which the words present immediately; and the mystic or spiritual, that which is referred to something besides what the words express; and this he says is either tropological, or anagogic, or allegorical. Thomas Aquinas, in the first part of his Sum. Quaest. i. Art 10, says out of Gregory, Moral. Lib. xx. c. 1, that it is the peculiar property of scripture, and of no other authors, that not only the words, but the things also, have a signification; and this he says is denoted by that book mentioned Ezek. ii. 10, and Revel, v. 1, which was “written within and without.” The words of Gregory cited by Thomas are these: “The sacred scripture transcends other sciences in the very manner of its expression, since in one and the same discourse it discloses a mystery while it narrates an event.” Nazianzen compares the literal sense to the body, the mystical and spiritual to the soul. The Jesuit uses a different simile: “As,” says he, “the begotten Word of God hath two natures, the one human and visible, the other divine and invisible; so the written word of God hath a two-fold sense: the one outward, that is, historic or literal; the other, inward, that is, mystic or spiritual.” Then he determines that this spiritual sense Is threefold, allegorical, anagogic, and tropological, as we have said before that others had determined also. These things we do not wholly reject: we concede such things as allegory, anagoge, and tropology in scripture; but meanwhile we deny that there are many and various senses. We affirm that there is but one true, proper and genuine sense of scripture, arising from the words rightly understood, which we call the literal: and we contend that allegories, tropologies, and anagoges are not various senses, but various collections from one sense, or various applications and accommodations of that one meaning.


Now the Jesuit’s assertion, that the literal sense is that which the words immediately present, is not true. For then what, I beseech you, will be the literal sense of these words, Ps. xci. 13,“Thou shalt go upon the adder and the basilisk; the lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under foot?” For if that be the literal sense of these words, which the words immediately present, let them shew us the lion on which Christ trampled, the adder or basilisk on which he walked. Either, therefore, the literal sense is not that which the words immediately present, as the Jesuit maintains; or these words have no literal sense, which he dares not affirm. For they say that all the senses mentioned above are to be found in every passage of scripture. Besides, what will they make the literal sense of Isaiah xi. 6, 7, 8, and lxv. last verse? where the prophet says that “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the sheep shall dwell together, and the calf and the bear pasture together,” &c. Certainly no one can shew where and when this prophecy was fulfilled according to the letter, if we determine the literal sense to be that which the words immediately suggest Finally, if this Jesuitical definition of the literal sense be true, what literal sense, I pray you, will remain in those words of Christ, Matt. v. 29, 30, “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out; if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off?” Origen, indeed,’ though elsewhere too much given to allegories and mystical senses,, interpreted these words according to the letter, but absurdly. The literal sense, then, is not that which the word immediately suggest,’ as the Jesuit defines it; but rather that which arises from the words themselves, whether they be taken strictly or figuratively. If the discourse be figurative, it is not to be explained according to that meaning which the sound of the words would at first and immediately suggest This is what Alphonsus de Castro seems to affirm, Contra Hoeres. Lib. I. c. 3, where he defines the literal sense better than the Jesuit, making it that which either the words, or the things expressed by the words, denote. For example, the literal sense of these words, “The seed of the woman shall crush the serpent’s head,” is this, that Christ shall beat down Satan, and break and crush all his force and power; although the devil neither is a serpent, nor hath a head.


As to those three spiritual senses, it is surely foolish to say that there are as many senses of scripture as the words themselves may be transferred and accommodated to bear. For although the words may be applied and accommodated tropologically, allegorically, anagogically, or any other way; yet there are not therefore various senses, various interpretations and explications of scripture, but there is but one sense, and that the literal which may be variously accommodated, and from which various things may be ‘collected. The apostle, indeed, Galat. iv. 24, interprets the history of Abraham’s two wives allegorically, or rather typically, of the two Testaments. But there he does not make a two-fold sense of that history, but only says that it may be allegorically interpreted to his purpose, and the illustration of the subject which he hath in hand. Indeed, there is a certain catachresis in the word ἀλληγορούμενα, for that history is not accommodated by Paul in that place allegorically, but typically; and a type is a different thing from an allegory. The sense, therefore, of that scripture is one only, namely, the literal or grammatical. However, the whole entire sense is not in the words taken strictly, but part in the type, part in the transaction itself. In either of these considered separately and by itself part only of the meaning is contained; and by both taken together the full and perfect meaning is completed.

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

Though the three most influential Reformed confessions (Westminster, Savoy, 2LCF) begin with Scripture, it may surprise the reader to learn that neither confession begins with Scripture as a stand-alone authority. In contemporary discussion revolving around the doctrine of sola Scriptura, too often is the authority of God mixed up with the authority of Scripture. Unwitting or not, the consequence of such a confusion not only insinuates Scripture stands alone as a non-derivative source of knowledge, but it also obscures the influence of theology proper in accounting for the nature of God’s Word. God’s Word is authoritative precisely because it derives from the chief Authority, God Himself. But if Scripture is unhinged from its divine cause, then its very nature falls into question. Inevitably, we begin to subject Scripture and its meaning to various other prejudgments rather than understanding the doctrine of God as the seat and determining agent of what Scripture is.

The current fight for sola Scriptura appears not to be a fight for that doctrine classically understood, but a fight for a particular modern understanding which unwittingly blurs the Creator-creature distinction. Is Scripture creature? If it is, it has a Creator and thus must be understood in light of that Creator. Is Scripture not creature? Well, then, it would be Creator (and we will go ahead and assume this option is off-limits to all of us). Divorced from a robust theology proper, our doctrine of Scripture will slowly but surely erode. If Scripture is caused, then it must be viewed in light of its cause. If we perceive it to be uncaused, with no determining ontology (God) in the background, then it becomes anybody’s wax nose. If there is no immutable cause, then why think the meaning of Scripture is anything but fluid?

Appealing to Confessional Doctrine

At this point, it would be helpful to note that the Second London Confession (1677) explicitly grounds the doctrine of Scripture in God Himself. It reads:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God (1.4).

Noteworthy in this paragraph is the transfer of Scripture from the hands of men (or any church) into the hands of God Himself. The negative influence of the Papacy is, of course, behind this paragraph more than any other prevalent institution during the 17th century. Perhaps the church of England, controlled as it were by the monarch, falls within its purview as well.

The central detail is the sufficient reason for why the Scripture ought to be received, that is, because it proceeds from God. The explanation for why we ought to receive Scripture is not the creature but the Creator. The explanation of Scripture’s authority and thus our obligation to receive it is found outside Scripture itself, namely in the God who authored it. And though human institutions may serve as a means to increase our interest in and appreciation of Scripture (cf. 1.5), the sufficient reason for receiving Scripture is its divine Author.

Even though ch. 1 of the confession is purposed to elucidate the doctrine of Scripture, par. 4 can’t help but to bring the doctrine of God into it—a move which apparently anticipates ch. 2. Apart from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Scripture is rendered void—being detached from the cause that makes it what it is. This is why the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of God come first in the confessional order—they are the principles of the faith. Scripture is the principle of knowing God unto salvation. God, however, is the principium essendi, or the principle of Being which explains the nature or ontology of Scripture in the first place.

Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Because God is the cause of Scripture, we are automatically summoned toward a theological interpretation of it. All texts must be interpreted in light of the One who inspired them. Not a single biblical text stands in isolation from its divine Author. Moreover, there is no consideration of a single text in isolation from the context of all the other texts. Knowledge of God, therefore, will shape how we understand the shape of the biblical canon and its particulars. This knowledge comes from two distinct places. 

First, nature bears the inescapable fruits of divine knowledge such that all people know God. Genesis 1:1 resonates even with the first-time Bible-reader because they have been created with the habitus to know God. More than this, throughout the course of their lives, they have discerned Him through His works (Rom. 1:18-20). Hence, Francis Turretin enlists natural theology as a preparatory help in one’s approach to revealed theology. For Turretin, natural theology is useful, “as a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures.”[1]

More pertinent to our purpose, however, is the question of how to prioritize theological data derived from Scripture, and how the clearest parts of Scripture illuminate obscure passages. The Second London reads, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly (1.9).” Clearer texts help us to understand less clear texts. Similarly, the divine cause of Scripture should temper our understanding of the creaturely language utilized by Scripture. Texts about the creature should not determine the meaning of texts about the Creator.

This is not to say God’s works as recorded in Scripture teach us nothing about God. Certainly, God’s works reveal God to us. But in spite of God’s works acting as a medium of divine revelation, we must understand that neither these works nor our apprehension of them condition God as He is in Himself in any way. As Dr. Richard Barcellos notes, “Though we learn of God in the economy, God’s external or outer works, we cannot account properly for those works without a theology of the One who works prior to accounting for them.”[2] Quoting Dr. John Webster, he writes, “God’s outer works are most fully understood as loving and purposive when set against the background of his utter sufficiency—against the fact that no external operation or relation can constitute or augment his life…”[3] And finally, Barcellos helpfully observes, “Without allowing first place to theology proper, we cannot make sense of the cosmological assertions of Scripture, nor, in particular, its anthropomorphic language pertaining to divine action…”[4]

Divine sufficiency accounts of Scriptural sufficiency. Apart from distinguishing between the ontology of the Creator and the ontology of the creature, throughout our Scriptural exegesis, our Scriptural exegesis cannot be expected to either yield or preserve a consistent Creator-creature distinction. This is why Biblicist accounts of Scriptural meaning tend toward numerous forms of heresy—from pantheism to patripassianism to Arianism. On a consistent Biblicist hermeneutics, nothing should be allowed to influence biblical interpretation, not even God Himself who is the very Author of the Bible. On this account, the creature will inevitably have priority, and God will slowly but surely be recrafted into man’s image instead of the other way around.


The Creator-creature distinction is that in light of which we ought to read Scripture. If our exegesis yields conclusions which effectively drag God into His economy, we should retool our exegetical approach in order to avoid such a miscalculation. Scripture must be understood in light of its Author. And though Scripture reveals its Author to us, it also reveals His works. Biblical revelation of God’s works must be tempered by biblical revelation of God Himself. This theological interpretation will not only preserve theology proper, but it will preserve the integrity and objectivity of Scripture and its purpose. Moreover, it will protect us from ourselves. If left to ourselves, we would perceive Scripture to be a wax nose. But if accountable to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our biblical interpretation, seeing all of Scripture in light of its divine cause, we will be led to uphold an orthodox doctrine of Scripture as well.


[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

[2] Barcellos, Richard, Trinity and Creation, (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2020), 13.

[3] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

[4] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

John Calvin on John 17:5

John Calvin on John 17:5

Recent discussion centered around the nature of the incarnation of the Son has driven some to investigate the interpretational tradition of John 17:5. Christology is one of the most difficult loci of Christian theology, and so we should approach it humbly, not approving of error, but also striving patiently and lovingly with our brothers when we believe they’ve misspoken. 

Presently, there seems to be a great deal of difficulty accounting for the Son’s assumption of a human nature and, as a result, the things the Son does in that human nature. Case in point, Christ’s prayer for the glory He had with the Father “before the world was” in John 17:5.

The issue seems to be the prima facie grammar of that singular verse. But behind the grammar lies the theological assumptions (or lack thereof) of the language used to speak of God in Himself: self-existence, immutability, impassibility, and simplicity. It’s as if some come to texts like John 17:5 and drop all their theology proper at the door, allowing for contingency, mutability, passibility, and complexity in the Son’s divine nature.

On its face, John 17:5 seems to insinuate Christ once had a glory that He did not have as He prayed, a glory that He prayerfully demands to resume upon the fulfillment of His Father’s will. Because of the confusion arising from this particular reading of John 17:5, I thought it best to revisit the traditional way in which the sense has been understood by the likes of John Calvin. Calvin is often at variance with other commentators, so I do not take him to be the end-all. But for all of Calvin’s novelty, e.g. John 5:20, the commitment to the fundamental Christology shown below remains continuous between him and others. I will survey Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion as well as his direct commentary on John 17:5, making my own comments as needed.

The Theology Behind Calvin’s Exegesis (The Institutes)

When reading a 16th century Bible commentator, like Calvin, it is important to have some grasp of the categories he was working with. For this, we need to visit his Institutes, in which he writes concerning the Person of the Son in whom, at the incarnation, two natures are united without conversion or confusion—

When it is said that the Word was made flesh, we must not understand it as if he were either changed into flesh, or confusedly intermingled with flesh, but that he made choice of the Virgin’s womb as a temple in which he might dwell. He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For we maintain, that the divinity was so conjoined and united with the humanity, that the entire properties of each nature remain entire, and yet the two natures constitute only one Christ.[1]

Key here is the phraseology, “that the entire properties of each nature remain entire.” Though “divine prerogatives” appears to be a term increasingly utilized in postmodernity (though there are uses in the 17th century), if it is to be used it must be included within the scope of what Calvin terms “properties of… nature.” In this case, the Person of the Son would not “lay aside” any properties or prerogatives proper to the divine nature as has recently been claimed. Instead, the Son qua God would maintain those prerogatives, though such (divine) prerogatives are neither proper to nor exemplified in the Person of the Son according to His human nature. In the same place, Calvin articulates what would later be termed partitive exegesis

They sometimes attribute to him qualities which should be referred specially to his humanity and sometimes qualities applicable peculiarly to his divinity, and sometimes qualities which embrace both natures, and do not apply specially to either.[2]

We see this parsing between divine and human natures united in the one Person elsewhere in Calvin when he writes—

Again, his being called the servant of the Father, his being said to grow in stature, and wisdom, and favour with God and man, not to seek his own glory, not to know the last day, not to speak of himself, not to do his own will, his being seen and handled, apply entirely to his humanity; since, as God, he cannot be in any respect said to grow, works always for himself, knows every thing, does all things after the counsel of his own will, and is incapable of being seen or handled.[3]

Thus, Calvin believes that what is proper to the divine nature ought to be appropriated to the Person of the Son accordingly, and likewise in terms of the human nature, while yet some things apply generically to Christ’s Person on the hypothesis of the communicatio idiomatum, e.g. the authority of Christ which is predicated of His Person. Nevertheless, creaturely traits must be referred to the creaturely nature, and divine “traits” to the divine.

John Calvin on John 17:5

Now that we have seen some of Calvin’s key assumptions, especially his partitive language, we are better equipped to observe and speak to his actual commentary on John 17:5. He begins by writing:

The glory which I had with thee. He desires to be glorified with the Father, not that the Father may glorify him secretly, without any witnesses, but that, having been received into heaven, he may give a magnificent display of his greatness and power, that every knee may bow to him. (Philippians 2:10)[4]

This is a glory to be manifest as a result of the finished work of Christ. Our Lord speaks of this glory in Luke 24:26, “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” This is a “display of his greatness” according to His human nature since, according to the divine nature this glorious greatness in the Person of the Son was never diminished or laid aside whatsoever. He concludes:

Consequently, that phrase in the former clause, with the Father, is contrasted with earthly and fading glory, as Paul describes the blessed immortality of Christ, by saying that he died to sin once, but now he liveth to God. (Romans 6:10)

Thus, a heavenly glory which Christ procured according to His human nature. He goes on:

The glory which I had with thee before the world was. He now declares that he desires nothing that does not strictly belong to him, but only that he may appear in the flesh, such as he was before the creation of the world; or, to speak more plainly, that the Divine majesty, which he had always possessed, may now be illustriously displayed in the person of the Mediator, and in the human flesh with which he was clothed. 

Calvin’s words here are crucial, “He now declares that he desires nothing that does not strictly belong to him…” In other words, this glory is a glory the Son always possessed and never laid aside, but prayed that He might enter into it according to His human nature at His exaltation. This exaltation was not an exaltation according to His divine nature, but according to His human nature. After all, how could the Person of the Son be exalted according to His divine nature if the divinity never underwent humiliation?

This becomes plain when Calvin says, “that the Divine majesty, which he had always possessed, may now be illustriously displayed in the person of the Mediator, and in the human flesh with which he was clothed.” This is nothing more and nothing less than a prayer for an incarnate glorification of the divine Person of the Son according to His incarnate human nature. In other words, the Person of the Son never laid aside any glory in the divine nature. According to His human nature, however, all that principally and necessarily pertains to humanity, apart from sin, must be ascribed to Him. Calvin goes on—

This is a remarkable passage, which teaches us that Christ is not a God who has been newly contrived, or who has existed only for a time; for if his glory was eternal, himself also has always been. Besides, a manifest distinction between the person of Christ and the person of the Father is here expressed; from which we infer, that he is not only the eternal God, but also that he is the eternal Word of God, begotten by the Father before all ages.

The Son, eternally God, of one essence/nature with the Father, assumed the fulness of a human nature. Features of creatureliness (not divinity) are appropriated to the human nature and not to the divine, e.g. walking, praying, ignorance, etc. Furthermore, Calvin notes the distinction between the Persons of the Father and Son, and also the manner of distinction, “he is not only the eternal God, but also that he is the eternal Word of God, begotten by the Father before all ages.” In His Institutes, he further elaborates—

The worthy doctors who then had the interests of piety at heart, in order to defeat it is man’s dishonesty, proclaimed that three subsistence were to be truly acknowledged in the one God. That they might protect themselves against tortuous craftiness by the simple open truth, they affirmed that a Trinity of Persons subsisted in the one God, or (which is the same thing) in the unity of God.[5]

He further adds, “In each hypostasis the whole nature is understood the only difference being that each has his own peculiar subsistence.”[6] The “peculiar subsistence” or the “peculiar property” of either Person is “unbegottenness (Father),” “begottenness (Son),” and, “spiration (Spirit).” These are termed the eternal “relations” of origin. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith puts it this way, “the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son…” (2.3).

Calvin adds further detail, “when we denote the relation which [the Son] bears to the Father, we correctly make the Father the beginning of the Son.”[7] By “beginning” it is here intended that the Father is the eternal “generator” of the Son, whilst the Son is eternally “generated” of the Father. Thus, for Calvin, it is in this way we distinguish between Father, Son, and Spirit, “But when the Son is joined with the Father, relation comes into view, and so we distinguish between the Persons.” Hence, the Athanasian Creed, “He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time.” And Chalcedon, “but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…”


It can readily be seen that Calvin understands Christ’s praying in John 17:5 as according to His humanity, not His divinity. Some, thinking it a compromise of Trinitarian doctrine, worry that if the Son does not pray here according to His divinity, distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead are lost. However, the Persons in the Godhead are not, and have never been understood to be (save in recent history), distinguished in virtue of inner-Trinitarian communication, distinct centers of consciousness, distinct wills, etc. The Persons are not distinguished according to relational interaction between the divine Persons. Such would entail process and, thus, change in the Godhead.

Fixed thoroughly within the tradition of Trinitarian orthodoxy, Calvin shows us that the Persons are distinguished according to their manner of subsistence, i.e. the relations of origin, which constitute what he called the “peculiar properties” of each—unbettonness (Father), begottenness (Son), and spirations/breathed forth of Father and Son (Holy Spirit).

Therefore, according to Calvin, Christ prays according to His human nature in John 17:5, and the divine Persons remain sufficiently and really distinguished in virtue of the relations of origin. The Father is distinguished by unbegotten begetting, the Son by begotten begottenness, and the Spirit by spiration of both Father and Son. The divine Person of the Son prays to the divine Person of the Father, not as the Son eternally subsists in the divine nature, but as He subsists in the human nature from the time of the incarnation onward. Thus, to borrow the words of Matthew Henry, “Though as God he was prayed to, as man he prayed.”[8] 


[1] Calvin, John. The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition. Loc. 8012.

[2] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 8012.

[3] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 8027.

[4] Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel of John. Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition. Loc. 621-22.

[5] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1692.

[6] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1993.

[7] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2008.

[8] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1779.

John Gill’s Christology

John Gill’s Christology

God is far beyond our ways such that man must strain the outer limits of his language just to flick the hem of His robe (if that). For this reason, the commonality of human error in thinking and speaking about God, while not right, is nevertheless understandable. Take any given hour of the day, it is doubtful any of us could manage to count all our theological errors in either thought or deed, either explicit or implicit. Without God’s grace, we would be doomed.

Notwithstanding, in proportion with the grace God gives, it is of monumental importance that we take much care in our theological efforts, confessing our errors when we have opportunity. What we think about God is everything.

Basic Heresies

Before we examine the words of the good doctor John Gill on the incarnation as they appear in his Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity,[1] we will need to prepare the reader for the orthodoxy therein, that it might be all the more appreciated. As far as I can tell, Gill implies the falsehood of at least four heresies: (1) Anthropomorphitism; (2) Patripassianism/Modalism; (3) Kenotic theory; and (4) Arianism. I briefly describe each immediately below— 

(1) Anthropomorphitism: A heresy that holds that what is properly said of the creature, and especially man, may be properly said also of the divine essence. Extreme and obvious examples of this heresy would be the claim that God has a physical, anatomical or celestial body. More subtle versions exist in the affirmations of change (motion), complexity (or composition), etc. in the divine essence. Assigning any of these things to God beyond metaphor or analogy confuses the Creator/creature distinction.

(2) Patripassianism/Modalism: A heresy that suggests that in the suffering of Christ, which includes the whole of His humiliation, likewise the Father suffers. If the Father and the Son are one essence, and the Son incarnates, then incarnation is implied of the Father as well, or so it is thought. This heresy is usually considered a twin of Modalism if not identified with it, since it implicatively conceives of God as one Person. Justin Martyr addresses this heresy in his First Apology.

(3) Kenotic Theory: This is the heresy that must take for granted Anthropomorphitism in that it requires an “emptying” of either the Son’s divinity itself in whole or part, or the laying aside of certain prerogatives proper to His divinity in His incarnation. In kenosis, the Son’s divine and human natures are blended or confused such that what is proper to the creaturely nature is misappropriated to the divine nature, e.g. since the Son was humble in the incarnate state, and since the Son is God, He must have ceased the exercise of divine power or prerogative during His humility. We will see how Gill, with all the orthodox, avoid the Kenotic theory.

(4) Arianism: Arianism is perhaps the most famous heresy mentioned here, being the chief cause for the Nicene Council in 325 AD. Arianism conceives of the Son as a created being who is nevertheless God-like. For Arius, the Son was the first creation, but is altogether creaturely.

John Gill’s Christology & Why It Matters

In some corners of contemporary theological discourse, a well-meant effort to “just be biblical” is leading some to either adopt or neglect categories that imply one (or more) of the above four heresies. I thought it helpful, then, to reach back in time to an older mind than our own in order to gain a fresh perspective. To do this, I will quote Gill intermittently, making comments throughout to show how his language avoids the above mentioned heresies—

Nor by the Logos, or Word made flesh, are we to understand the divine nature, essentially considered, or the essence of God, as common to the three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit; for then it would be equally true of the Father and the Spirit, that they are made flesh, or become incarnate, as of the Son; as it must needs be, if the divine nature, so considered, was incarnated; or the human nature was united to it as such: such phrases are therefore unsound, unsafe, and dangerous… 

At this point, Gill is quite clearly protecting the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He says that the “Word made flesh,” or the Son’s assumption of a human nature, should not be applied to the divine essence properly so-called, but to the divine essence as it subsists in the second relation of origin, or the Person of the Son. This language avoids Patripassianism/Modalism because it consistently recognizes the real distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit, and the modal distinction between the divine essence and the Persons (more on this shortly).

…as that the man Christ stands in the divine nature; and that the human nature is united to Deity; this is not the truth of things; the human nature is not united to Deity absolutely considered; but as that in a distinct mode of subsisting, is in the second Person, the Son of God…

Continuing his negation, Gill denies that the incarnation is as “the man Christ stands in the divine nature,” which is to deny confusion of the human nature of Christ with the divine nature of Christ. We confess, in The Second London Baptist Confession (1677), that “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion… (8.2).” Gill then invokes the modal distinction which had been employed centuries before him, and is utilized by Francis Turretin just a century before. The assumption of a human nature is to be appropriated to God, not absolutely, but according to the second mode of subsistence in the order of procession, which is the Son of the Father.

Here, Gill avoids both Anthropomorphitism and Patripassianism by refusing to mix divine and human natures and by, once more, upholding the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. In telling us the Son’s assumption of humanity was not “as that the man of Christ stands in the divine nature,” Gill avoids reading God’s works (the incarnation) back into the divine Being. He is careful not to apply what is proper to the human nature of the Son to the divine nature of the Son, and vice versa. Moreover, he once more distinguishes the Son from Father and Spirit by an invocation of the modal distinction, that the divine essence subsists in a distinct subsistence from the first and third subsistences is absolutely central in preserving orthodox theology proper while at once affirming an orthodox doctrine of the incarnation. It avoids Modalism and it assists in avoiding the predication of creaturely properties, in light of the incarnation, to the divine essence.

Gill furthermore avoids Kenotic theory because the divine and human natures, while understood to be united in the self-same Person of the Son, remain distinguishable. The assumption of human nature in no way implies a change in the Son according to His divinity. That which is proper to the human nature is appropriated to the human nature, and that which is proper to the divine nature continues to be appropriated to the divine nature, with not one iota of confusion.

…it was the Son of God, by whom God made the world, and by him speaks to men, in these last days, who is the brightness of his Father’s glory, and the express image of his Person; the Creator of angels, and the object of their worship and adoration; and who upholds all things by the word of his power, who partook of the same flesh and blood with the children, and has taken upon him and assumed to him, not the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham, he who was in the form of God, of the same nature with him, and thought it no robbery to be equal with God, is he that took upon him the form of a servant, the nature of man in a servile state, was made in the likeness of man, and found in fashion as a man, or really became man.

Here, Gill avoids Arianism and Anthropomorphitism. Arius held that the Son was a creature. But here, Gill denies such by saying, “it was the Son of God, by whom God made the world,” by which he means all created things. If the Father made all created things through the Son, this would appear to preclude the Son Himself from being the subject of that creative act by logical necessity. Furthermore, Anthropomorphitism, the ascription of creatureliness to God (a blending of Creator/creature), is avoided when Gill tells us that this same Son who “upholds all things by the word of his power” also “assumed to him… the seed of Abraham (humanity).” The Son remains God—unchanged, unmanipulated—while also assuming human nature. Gill well understands that, in order to preserve the Creator/creature distinction, what is proper of the divine nature must be said of the divine nature, and what is proper of the human nature must be said of the human nature.

Lastly, Gill invokes Philippians 2, not to argue kenosis (as some have done), but to declare the deity of Christ, “and thought it no robbery to be equal with God,” whilst also affirming the assumption of human nature, “that took upon him the form of a servant, the nature of man in a servile state…” He ends by using the common terminology, “or really became man.” But, in light of the above, Gill does not here mean that the divine essence literally became that which it was not before. To become is creaturely, because it entails change. Rather, by “become” he only refers to the assumption of a “true body, and a reasonable soul (The Baptist Catechism, Q. 25).”


Hopefully, the above interaction with John Gill has been helpful in understanding how important careful theological terminology is. Essence, nature, person, etc., terms like these allow the people of God to avoid teaching or implying the heresies mentioned above (and more). Much more could be said regarding Gill and countless of his predecessors. One thing, however, is for sure: We are at a time where we desperately need to return to the old paths in order to go forward (Jer. 6:16). Older isn’t always better, but oftentimes it is. This case is certainly no exception.


[1] John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity: Or A System of Evangelical Truths, Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures, New Edition., vol. 1 (Tegg & Company, 1839), 540.