Classical Theism Takes On Divine Temporality

Classical Theism Takes On Divine Temporality

This article is an excerpt adaptation from a paper titled, “Divine Simplicity: Non-Composition, Necessity, & Divine Timelessness”.

The notion of divine temporality is an increasingly popular attempt to reconcile the temporality of creation with the necessary and eternal Creator. With the decline of classical metaphysics in the West, theologians and philosophers are left, once more, with trying to reconcile two inescapable realities: being and becoming. One way to do this is by assigning an eternal ontology to time itself, locating it as a co-eternal reality with God or otherwise placing it within God as a non-essential and eternal reality allowing possible succession in, but not essential to, the divine essence, e.g., intrinsic and extrinsic succession.

On the other hand, the doctrine of divine simplicity should be related to the classical understanding of divine eternality, or divine timelessness. Richard Muller defines aeternitas as follows, “By this attribute, the scholastics understand the existence and continuance (duratio) of God without beginning or end and apart from all succession and change.”[1] He goes on to qualify, “Eternity therefore transcends not only limited time but also infinite temporal succession, namely, time itself.” This is relevant to contemporary theories of divine temporality for the following reasons.

Conversing with Ryan Mullins & the Oxford School

Describing the Oxford school of divine temporality, Ryan Mullins states, “There are several ways to articulate an absolute theory of time, but one of the main underlying beliefs on the Oxford school is that time can exist without change. Time is the dimension of possible change.”[2] Further clarifying the Oxford school, Mullins adds, “time is a necessary concomitant of God’s being.”[3] According to Mullins, the Oxford school holds that, “Upon creating the universe [God] brings about intrinsic and extrinsic change in His life.

His present life then consists of a one-to-one correspondence with the cosmic present of the universe.”[4] But even granting the Oxford school’s absolute theory of time, one may just as well argue that if time is a concomitant of God’s being, representing a dimension of possible change, God would then be an admixture of act and potency. For He would have the potential to change from one state to another. This appears to be a clear denial of immutability—a doctrine that not only suggests God does not change but also that He cannot change.

There is one other problem. Given the doctrine of divine simplicity as discussed above, if God is an admixture of act and potency, contingency follows. At minimum, there would be act, i.e., God’s “to be” or esse, in addition to the potencies limiting that act.[5] Furthermore, this would result in a real distinction between God’s essence and His esse or existence. In this case, God would depend on that which is more basic than Himself to be what He is. He would be a composite object and, as such, not the first cause. Mullins may want to reply that any partition relevant to God wouldn’t necessarily take place within the divine essence.

Along these lines, he writes, “God is immutable in that His essential divine nature cannot change, but He can undergo non-essential intrinsic and extrinsic changes like becoming the Creator, Redeemer, and Lord of humanity.”[6] But one might wonder what, exactly, distinguishes God’s essence from other things in God that might change intrinsically or extrinsically. What is that which can change intrinsically or extrinsically to God in relation to the divine essence? And if both the divine essence and that which is not the divine essence constitute God, then there would need to be some properties inherent within the divine essence sufficient to distinguish it from that which does change in God. Mullins, after all, says God “is capable of undergoing change.” The result is that the divine essence would constitute in virtue of properties more basic than itself—properties needed to sufficiently distinguish it from other things in God.

If this is the case, the divine essence would not be immutable since, conceivably, it could change given the subtraction of one or more of said properties. Of course, the retort may be that this would not happen. But that is very different from saying this could not happen. For one might imagine such an essence without one or more of its distinguishing characteristics. To use the possible world semantics popular within analytical thought: There is a possible world in which one or more of those properties do not inhere within the divine essence. Hence, the divine essence would be changeable, not unchangeable.

Mullins, and presumably the Oxford school, seem to accept an Aristotelian notion of eternal time as a concomitant of motion. H. D. Gardeil writes:

Aristotle remarks that eternal things, things which are always, are not in time, since their existence is not affected by time and cannot be measured by it… But in another sense Aristotle also attributes eternity to motion. There has always been motion, he believes, and always will be. Thus the world itself is eternal.[7]

In other words, while there are eternal things outside or transcendent of time, nevertheless, for Aristotle, motion is also eternal and thus requires an eternal duration. The Oxford school is similar in that it requires the eternality of time and motion in a certain sense. Yet, in an advance beyond Aristotle, the Oxford school locates both time and motion in God whereas Aristotle conceived of a static deity. Distinguishing Aristotle’s metaphysics from the more nuanced medieval Christian synthesis, Gardeil continues:

Eternity, in its complete meaning, presupposes utter immobility and changelessness, or, in the succinctness of Boethius, the totally simultaneous possession of one’s entire life. When so understood, eternity is only in God, who alone is the substantially Eternal; of Him alone is it true to say that eternity is an essential attribute, that essence and life are one.[8]

Mullins, on the other hand, suggests a potential in God for mutation, “Since God exists necessarily and is capable of undergoing change, time exists necessarily.”[9] Aristotle saw both mutation and temporality as features of contingency. For this reason, he removed both from God who, in his estimation, must be necessary. But Mullins places both mutation and time squarely in God and, as a result, apparently contradicts his own stated belief that God is necessary.[10] For a necessary being to be necessary, it cannot be contingent; that is, it cannot be dependent upon that which is more basic than itself to be what it is, e.g., act, potency, essence, esse, etc.

Contingency & Creatio Ex Nihilo

In his book Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, Steven Duby writes, “God’s eternity is shorthand for his being without beginning or end and having fullness of life without that fullness being acquired or lost through temporal succession.”[11] To the contrary, Mullins states, “All divine temporalists hold that God has succession in His life subsequent to the act of creation, but some differences arise with regard to God’s life prior to creation.”[12] Granting the acquisition of succession at creation, this would entail an actualization of some potency “concomitant of God’s being.”

Not only does actualization of potency denote partition and thus contingency for reasons given above, but an actualized potency requires the acquisition of being that was not before in act. While Mullins maintains creatio ex nihilo in terms, one might wonder whether it may be reasonably retained in the Oxford school. If an actualization of some potential in God is requisite to His creative work, it would appear not that creation was made from nothing, but that it was made through some acquisition of being the Creator did not possess beforehand, i.e., succession, by which creation came to be. In other words, there would be two causes and explanations for creation rather than one. One of those causes would be God, and one of those causes would be temporality inasmuch as the latter explains God’s ability to create. Furthermore, to the extent temporality explains God’s ability to create, temporality—not God—is the first cause of the universe.

A startling thought to be sure.

Resources

[1]  Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Terms, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 18.

[2] R. T. Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” Journal of Analytic Theology, Vol. 2, 2014, 165.

[3] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 166.

[4] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 167.

[5] Bernard Wuellner, S. J., Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2012), 42.

[6] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 165.

[7] H. D. Gardeil, Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas: Cosmology, Vol. 2, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), 127-28. 

[8] Gardeil, Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, 129.

[9] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 165.

[10] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 169.

[11] Steven Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), 31.

[12] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 164.

Trading the Lord’s Day for… Christmas?

Trading the Lord’s Day for… Christmas?

The Gospel Coalition (of course) recently published an article by Fletcher Lang in which Lang defends his church’s decision to cancel services on Sunday, December 25. The article is in response to an earlier piece written by Kevin DeYoung admonishing pastors to hold Lord’s Day services regardless of its “conflict” with Christmas. One has to either laugh or cry at the dialectic represented by The Gospel Coalition’s efforts to actually discuss whether canceling church on Christmas day is a viable option by any standard of ecclesiastical orthodoxy. It shouldn’t even be considered a debate. 

Yet, here we are.

In his article, Lang walks through two main points to try and substantiate his church’s decision to cancel services on Christmas. Below, I would like to test each of these points for biblical wisdom and rationale.

Point #1: “Our Context Makes a Christmas Day Service Uniquely Difficult”

This is not an argument. It’s a bad rhetorical statement. The thoughtful reader should easily pick up on the subjective nature of language like “our context.” What is Lang’s context? The Boston, MA metro, secular neighbors, a rented space, and a “transient” culture—by which he means, “many of our most committed members are traveling around the country or world for Christmas and are unable to run set up chairs and run sound.”

So, it’s logistics? And it’s not just logistics, it’s (mostly) unnecessary logistics. Lang has 100 people at his church plant. One to three people could set up 100 chairs within 20 minutes. Sound? Audio/visual has always been a convenience, not a necessity. How did all those poor churches in the 1800s (and prior) survive without artificial audio projection!

Now, aside from the obvious holes in Lang’s reasoning, Scripture hardly qualifies when it commands the assembling of God’s people. (Heb. 10:24-25) Sure, there are providential hindrances that result in a missed service here and there for some, but these are actual hindrances, not self-imposed obstacles or less-than-ideal circumstances. Consider the early church. One only needs to read through the first few pages of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to see how the “context” of the early church made things difficult for Christian assembly. 

And yet those saints of old assembled notwithstanding the threats to their lives or the lives of their families. The modern “church” isn’t built that way. If Christmas is an obstacle, persecution would be insurmountable!

Our culture of ease and entitlement has made our sense of conviction exceedingly dull.

Point #2: “There’s Scriptural Freedom”

Lang claims that “we have freedom to meet or not on special Sundays like this.” The issue here has to do with Scriptural authority. Who made the Sunday in question “special”? God or man? Where in Scripture is any other day except the Lord’s Day instituted by God, especially in terms of New Testament worship? Lang’s “liberty” is tantamount to a denial of the perpetuity of the 4th commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Ex. 20:8) The Second London Baptist Confession reads:

The sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering their common affairs aforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all day, from their own works, words and thoughts, about their worldly employment and recreations, but are also taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (22.8)

We should be quick to confess the doctrine of Christian liberty, but we should be careful not to use that liberty as a pretense for sin.

Hebrews 10:25, which Lang cites, is not simply the prohibition of habitual absence from church on the Lord’s Day. It’s a regulatory commandment. It’s a commandment because even though the “let us” in v. 24 is in the subjunctive, it functions imperatively since it regulates religious behavior. The “assembling of ourselves together” is integral to an ordinary pattern of Christian worship. The “manner of some” is to neglect that pattern. They have made a custom out of neglecting the Lord’s Day. This may be a weekly, monthly, or an annual pattern of negligence. The text does not specify. The point here is the establishment of a religious norm according to which the people of God are to live—regular worship on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week.

Lastly, Lang tries to apply the principle of Christian liberty from Romans 14:5-7. He says, “We all agree Christmas Day is a special day. It’s not ‘just another Sunday.’” But not everyone agrees with this. Liberty cuts both ways. While Christians may have the liberty to esteem Christmas day as a special day, and I believe they do, they also have the liberty to maintain the ordinary pattern for Christian worship even if it falls on Christmas day, and this is what Lang doesn’t seem to realize. He and the elders of his church are subtly requiring that all 100 members of their congregation forgo ordinary worship at their church on the Lord’s Day in observance of Christmas Day—a man-made holiday.

Under pretense of “Christian liberty” Lang’s church, and others like it, are binding the consciences of those who believe they ought to be able to worship God on Sunday, December 25 at their home church. Lang and company are using their “liberty” to infringe upon the liberty of others.

But this isn’t even the most salient point. The weightier matter is canceling a God-ordained day in favor of a man-ordained day. And this is a travesty. Even if all 100 members of Lang’s church wanted to shut the doors on December 25, that’s simply not a decision man gets to make.

Conclusion

While many Christians will no-doubt celebrate Christmas with their families, we must remember that Christmas observance is an extracurricular activity and is not part of biblically-ordained Christian worship. God has ordained one day, marked by the resurrection of the incarnate Son, which is to be observed until the end of the ages, and that is the Lord’s Day. And the Lord’s Day ought not be supplanted by either secular affairs or man-made customs. Such would be to disobey the Scriptural pattern of ordinary Christian worship.

Gary DeMar & 1 Thessalonians 4

Gary DeMar & 1 Thessalonians 4

Full disclosure, I have no interest in making a judgment about the state of Gary DeMar’s soul. I have no reference point on social media, nor do I care to. Declaring the state of souls is not my duty. But what I can say is this: 

It’s extremely concerning that a professing Christian tends not to answer questions about the bodily resurrection. It’s concerning that a single individual trusts himself enough to call into question (so easily it seems) the historical consensus of Christ’s people (this autonomy is endemic among these types it seems). And it’s also concerning that DeMar does all of this while maintaining a decently high profile influence over younger and/or more impressionable Christians.

DeMar won’t say much. But what he has said bears some informational content. And that informational content is worth engaging, if not for the benefit of changing his mind, then for the prospective benefit of onlookers.

Again, to qualify, I am not leveling a judgment against DeMar’s soul. He may very well be a Christian. But inquiring minds have concerns. Pastoral concerns. Concerns for the flock. So, without any further ado, let’s get underway.

What DeMar Has Said

Recently, on social media, I’ve posted two closely related statements issued by DeMar on a not-so-old podcast episode published by the ‘The Burros of Berea’. It’s found in episode #77, starting around the 1:29:00 mark. In this section of the podcast, DeMar is asked about what he believes will happen when he dies. He answers as follows, “I believe that when you die, you go to be with the Lord. And you get a new body at that time, a spiritual body.” Soon after, he follows up with a reference to 1 Thessalonians 4, saying, “[The bodily resurrection] doesn’t make sense with 1 Thessalonians 4 because you have to assume that the ‘dead’ there refer to dead bodies rather than ‘the dead’, ‘dead people’.”

More recently, I reproduced these two statements on Facebook in response to this post. After being asked to clarify those statements, DeMar replied, “I believe is [sic] a viable interpretation.” And when asked what that meant, he simply doubled down, “It’s a viable interpretation.” Assuming he’s referring to 1 Thessalonians 4, and that it may be suggestive of a spiritual (rather than a future bodily) resurrection, I issue the following response—

Is Omitting a Future, Bodily Resurrection from 1 Thessalonians 4 a “Viable Interpretation”?

The short answer? No.

I could appeal to the historical interpretation of the text, which would be a worthwhile pursuit. But I believe 1 Thessalonians 4 is clear enough to be interpreted at face value. But first, let’s look at a few other texts that clearly support the traditional notion of a future bodily resurrection.

In the Second London Confession, we read, “At the last day, such of the saints as are found alive, shall not sleep, but be changed; and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other…” (31.2) This doctrine is grounded in a reality Christ has already inherited following the completion of His work. Paragraph 3 makes this plain when it explains the reason for our future resurrection, “the bodies of the just, [are raised] by his Spirit, unto honour, and [are] made conformable to his own glorious body.” The same language is found in the Westminster Standards.

The 17th century Particular Baptist and Westminster divines grounded the believer’s resurrection in Christ’s resurrection because Christ’s resurrection is the pattern of our hope. In other words, given our union with Christ, what He earned as Mediator becomes ours. In Romans 6:5, Paul writes, “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection…” In vv. 8-9, he goes on, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him…” The phrase, “we shall also live,” cannot refer to regeneration, nor can it refer to the reception of a body other than the “selfsame” body we presently inherit. This for two reasons: (1) the phrase is in the future tense, which precludes a reference to regeneration; and (2) v. 5 makes it clear that our resurrection is like unto Christ’s. And if His selfsame body did not remain in the earth, then neither shall ours.

Speaking of ungodly teachers, Paul writes to Timothy, “And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some.” (2 Tim. 2:17-18) This passage precludes a full preterist reading of the bodily resurrection. Furthermore, it cannot refer to a subjective, spiritual resurrection—as if each dying person receives a glorified spiritual body at their death. Paul is clear, the resurrection hasn’t happened yet. And to suggest that it has tends to overthrow the Christian faith!

One more passage before we get to 1 Thessalonians 4… 

In 1 Peter 1:3, the apostle writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” It may seem like a routine apostolic greeting, but let’s think through the language by means of a logical process:

Step 1: Did Christ die? Yes. That much is implied in the text itself, and no professing Christian doubts it. It’s relatively uncontroversial.

Step 2: Did His soul die? No. Why? Because Jesus Himself makes that clear when he issues a promise to the thief on the cross, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43) And in Luke 23:46, He says, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit.’”

Step 3: If our Lord perished, but His soul didn’t die, what was raised from the dead? It was His selfsame body. Hence, the women discovered an empty tomb. (Lk. 24:22-23)

Death is the departure of the soul from the body. That is the traditional-philosophical definition of death, and it is also the biblical understanding. The soul is immortal. The body is not, at least not until the resurrection of the body when we “are clothed with immortality.”

Okay, now for 1 Thessalonians 4…

Is DeMar’s suggestion that it does not speak of a future bodily resurrection “viable”?

Let’s look at the evidence.

A partial-tending-full preterist could easily throw a gloss of 1 Thessalonians 4 into his paradigm with a measure of success if it weren’t for the details. In v. 14, for example, we read, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” Now, this statement may not be as well attended as the following vv. 15-18 (because those often seem eschatologically juicier). But v. 14 seems to obviate a full-preterist reading. Look closely at the language. As with Romans 6, Paul grounds the resurrection in Christ’s resurrection, which was the resurrection of His selfsame body unto a glorious estate. Strengthening this suggestion are the words, “even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” That small phrase, “even so,” could be rendered, “also in this way,” or, “so too, in this way…” And this makes for an overall reading as follows, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so too, in this way God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” Lexically, the term used here for “in this way” (οὕτω) means “in the manner spoken of.” 

Conclusion? In the same manner Christ was raised, those asleep in Jesus shall be raised also. If Christ’s selfsame body was raised (the tomb was empty), so too shall our selfsame bodies be raised (all our “tombs” shall be empty like His was). But this can only be the case if (1) the resurrection is future, and (2) if it entails the reception of the same, albeit glorified, bodies we currently possess.

As a bonus consideration, v. 16 reads, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” While some preterists may want to relegate this to a past event, 1 Corinthians 15 corroborates a futurist reading of this text, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (v. 52) Paul places himself among those who “shall be changed,” by using the first person plural, “we.”

Conclusion

I believe there to be plenty of evidence that demonstrates a future bodily resurrection (the orthodox position), and that it consists in the resurrection of our selfsame bodies in the manner of Christ’s own resurrection. Much more could be said. My concern rests with those who will be influenced by DeMar or by those with similar platforms and beliefs to his own. My prayer is that my engagement doesn’t come off as an exercise in heresy hunting, but that my tone is perceivably pastoral and irenic.

May the Lord get the glory.

Will the Christian Ever Stop Working?

Will the Christian Ever Stop Working?

What is our blessed hope? To what do we look as we anticipate this life giving way to the next? Paul asks a similar question in 1 Thessalonians 2:19, “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing?” His answer is stunningly brief, “Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?” Paul shifts our attention to the presence of God at the great coming of God, in which we ought to rejoice. He does not labor to characterize the world to come in similar terms to what we now experience. Instead, he understands the world to come to consist in the greatest good, the summum bonum, or the beatific presence of God.

Because of modern assumptions, many are not satisfied that the only object of our attention in glory will be God Himself. We’ve been taught to make this present world a template for understanding the next. Instead, we ought to understand the world to come as that upon which this present is based. The present world is but a type of the one to come. The world to come, not the world that is, is the pattern. Moses didn’t see the tabernacle on Mt. Sinai. He saw the ultimate pattern (τύπος) upon which it was based and the end to which it aimed. The tabernacle itself is but a shadow pointing to the end, a construct vaguely approximating what Moses saw on the mountain. (Heb. 8:5)

Understanding the Initial Goal of Man’s Work

Unwittingly, Christians often make the assumption, implicitly or explicitly, that the work of redemption was intended to restore man to a Garden of Eden situation, and that nearly everything about the pre-lapse life will characterize life in glory. Another assumption is that a man’s material body is only good for exercising leadership and work—two situational principles related to the cares of this present order. There simply can be no other end for man, it is thought, but to live like we live now, albeit with some accidental changes between our present condition and the state of glory, e.g. we will rule and work without sin.

Both of these assumptions, however, seem to fall short of a robust biblical understanding of individual eschatology. But how did we arrive here? Why have most of us come to assume that glory will not consist in rest, but in a continuance of labor similar to what we currently experience? As Dr. Richard Barcellos might say, We got the garden wrong. So, how might getting the Garden right inform our understanding of work in relation to man’s blessed end? 

Most importantly, it is the Garden-narrative that first introduces the purpose of man’s work. Genesis 2:15 says, “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden to tend and keep it.” Man’s work (tending) is his maintenance and expansion of the garden to the four-corners of the earth. Barcellos writes, “[Adam] started his task in the garden of Eden, which, as we have seen, was the earth’s first localized temple. Adam was commissioned to expand that Edenic temple to the four corners of the earth.”[1]

Sometimes the toil of our present work is associated with the effects of sin following the fall. However, even before the fall there was a certain toil associated with man’s labor as the term for “tend” (עָבַד) indicates.[2] This is not a sinful toil, nor a toil caused by sin. This toil is not associated with a curse. But it is associated with the expectation of a goal to be met through work—the anticipation of something other and greater than a life characterized by labor. In other words, there is something more desirable than work to which work tends. And in this case, Adam’s work served Adam’s eschatology. So, to suggest man’s present work is a necessary feature of man as man is inaccurate. Work was instituted for a definite end. It has a final cause or goal. It presupposes completion, and it begs the prospect of rest. For the first Adam, the goal of his work was the attainment of a secure situation with God—a security no longer available through our work, but only through the work of the second Adam.

Some dispute the notion that the first Adam had an eschatology at all. However, the two trees in the middle of the garden, the charge to tend and keep the garden, and the raw materials covering the earth (presumably for the first Adam’s use) beg to differ. The tree of life is associated with man’s bliss and security in a state of incorruption, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” (Rev. 2:7) And, “In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2) And once more, “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.” (Rev. 22:14)

Given the purpose of the tree of life, we may conclude that the first Adam’s eating of the tree of life would have resulted in a similar situation to that of the saints seen in Revelation. Implied in Genesis 1-2 is Adam’s task to tend (work) and guard (keep) the Garden. Given the resources available beyond the Garden and his charge to “fill the earth,” Adam was tasked with not only caring for but also expanding the Garden. (Gen. 1:28; 2:10-14) 

Adam’s task to “keep” the garden was one of guardianship, presumably from the serpent—a task he failed to complete. All indicators point toward the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a judgment tree at which Adam should have judged and executed Satan, i.e. it does not appear on the new earth since judgment is completed at the consummation. It was the tree upon which Satan should have been crucified. Instead, we formed allegiance with Satan and now deserve to be crucified on that same tree. However, Christ is crucified or cursed on our behalf, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree…” (Gal. 3:13)

Work, as a creational principle, was intended for the attainment of an eschatological end. And whereas Genesis 3 introduces man’s fall and the curse, the initial purpose of man’s work necessarily changes. No longer can it attain an eschatological end. The covenant of works has been broken. Work remains, but it is ineffectual to reach its initial purpose described by the state of innocence. For Christians, this work is no longer eschatological in the sense of obtaining some end. But it is both dutiful and helpful—it is commanded and it is instrumental in our sanctification. (Rom. 8:13) It characterizes the pilgrim’s way.

The Present Goal of Man’s Work & Whether That Goal Is Ever Reached

Work, for it to be meaningful, must continue to have a purpose. This purpose must be both proximate and remote. There are numerous goals we have in our work. These numerous goals are proximate, because each is immediately achieved by the completion of a task. I might boil an egg so as to enjoy eating it afterwards. But what is the remote purpose of work as a concept? What is the ultimate purpose of work per se? Most basically, our work no longer procures our eschatology. Christ alone is efficient and sufficient for this. Instead, our present work is an expression of the grace of God in our lives. For the Christian, work is an outworking of his gratis toward God for God’s unilateral accomplishment and application of redemption. For the Christian, this is true for both secular and sacred work (worship). Secular work consists in natural tasks common to all men. Sacred work consists in positively commanded tasks unique to the Christian faith. Both are performed to the glory of God as an outworking of the grace of God, not as an effort on man’s part to attain glory.

To qualify, we might say our grace-given work leads to glory only in a consequential sense. That is, upon the hypothesis of God’s grace, the necessary consequence is man’s work which characterizes man’s path to glory. A man who does not work does not reach glory. But that is not because he failed to work. It’s because he evidently does not possess the grace of God necessary for glory which inevitably produces work in the believer to one extent or another. Thus, work continues to be eschatologically significant but not eschatologically efficient. Hence, Paul writes, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.” (Rom. 3:27) Can we boast in our works in the end? Of course not. Why? Because the justification that explains our arrival at glory at long last isn’t conditioned at all upon our works, “for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Gal. 2:16)

Work, then, is now an expression of Christ in us. But what stage of Christ’s incarnate life is currently shown through us? It would obviously have to be the stage where He dwelt amongst us and demonstrated for us how to live unto the Father of lights. Peter seems to place the example of Christ concomitantly with His humiliation when he writes, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps…” (1 Pet. 2:21) But if Christ’s incarnate work is our template, then it should follow that Christ’s incarnate rest, which He received upon the completion of His work, will also be ours. In other words, if Christ is our pattern, His earthly life is to be our earthly life, and His heavenly rest is to be our heavenly rest. So, the author of Hebrews writes, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.” (Heb. 4:11)

The present goal of our work, then, is to imitate Christ by the grace of God in us. And this means we shall also imitate the end of Christ’s work which is His rest.

The End of Work?

We’ve all heard the popular phrase “mission accomplished.” 

A mission is a work with a definite goal. When that goal is reached, the mission concludes. If we view all present Christian work in this way, it becomes clear to us that work should have a definite goal, and therefore a point at which it concludes. This goal is rest. As seen in Hebrews 4:11, diligence (work) ends in rest (glory). Rest is the opposite of work, as is demonstrated throughout the Scripture repletely. 

First, in Genesis 2:2, God rests from all His works. There, rest is seen as the opposite of work. In some sense, God continued to work because that first rest was but typical of the finished work of the new creation, which ended in the Son’s incarnation and sufferings, and His entering into glory through resurrection and ascension. (Jn. 5:17)

Second, in Matthew 11:28, our Lord says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Again, rest is here the opposite of labor. In this text, labor should be understood as work per se. And though it is affected by sin, the first mention of labor is not particularly negative, but refers to man’s creational task. The second mention, “heavy laden” refers to the effects of sin upon us—both our own sin and the sins of others, along with our misery.

Third, in Matthew 26:45, Jesus rebukes His disciples for “resting” at an improper time. Their time of rest had not yet come, the Son of Man was being betrayed. He says, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.” Again, diligence, which the disciples ought to have had, is seen as opposite to rest. The term for “rest” (ἀναπαύω) used in this text is the same as that which is used in Matthew 11:28, where our Lord speaks of rest eschatologically and positively.

Fourth, if by “rest” was only meant relief from the effects of sin such that work would go on infinitely into future glory, then the term for “relief” (ἄνεσις) would probably be employed instead of ἀναπαύω, as in 2 Thessalonians 1:7, where “rest” is put for “relief” from affliction in the English—“and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels…”

Fifth, in Revelation 14:13, we read, “Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Write: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.’” Here, the term for “rest” is that proper term for “rest,” or the peace and solace we receive when our works are finished (ἀναπαύω). And it should be noticed that these works and labors are good works and labors, the nature of which began in the garden. But they are concluded when we “die in the Lord.”

Some have ventured to suggest that creational work is a necessary property of man’s nature. Work is a necessity of man’s nature. Since he was created with it he must do it, or so it is sometimes assumed. As the sun must shine to be the sun, so too must the man work to be a man. However, seeing as how work is always an operation explained by man’s will, it cannot be a necessity of nature. A man may still be a man, though he does not work—or though he rests. Work is an accident of man’s nature instituted in the beginning for a positive purpose. It does not make man man. It is a potency in man. But a potency need not be necessarily actualized.

Furthermore, some would like to suggest that man’s work does not have a definite end, but that work proceeds ad infinitum cycling through countless different goals indefinitely. This is absurd. As Thomas Aquinas says, “if there were no last end, nothing would be desired, nor would any action have its term, nor would the intention of the agent be at rest; while if there is no first thing among those that are ordained to the end, none would begin to work at anything, and counsel would have no term, but would continue indefinitely.” (ST.I-II.Q1.A4.Obj2)

In other words, a linear progress of work meeting goals ad infinitum would not allow any one goal to be reached. Consider an infinite succession of moments. How could we ever reach this moment if an infinite number of moments preceded it? Furthermore, there would be no such thing as a superior goal, or a goal that is more desirable than the others.

Conclusion

Work and rest is a staple of the biblical-redemptive narrative. Work must be understood as that which leads to rest, and rest must be understood as the final end of work to which we look. If this was not the case, Christ’s work is never complete, our work is never complete, and true rest is never reached. Furthermore, if work is a necessity of man’s nature from man’s creational constitution, then it loses all its eschatological significance. The parallelism between the two Adams falls into question. Does the second Adam bring to an end what the first Adam did not and then some? If work doesn’t lead to rest, then how are we to understand the finished work of Christ as it typologically parallels the work that the first Adam was initially charged to complete but yet fell short of that completion?

Instead, I suggest we understand glory to consist in beatitude, where we behold God without sin. This beatitude is sufficient for us. God is enough for us. And thus, we rest. There is no more working for an end. For the end has been reached. Paul understands the world to come to consist in the greatest good, the summum bonum, or the beatific presence of God. In this consists our rest, our happiness, and the consummation of our ultimate end, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” (Cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1)

Resources

[1] Richard Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right, (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2017), 155.

[2] Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 712.

The Sufficiency of Scripture, the Insufficiency of Man

The Sufficiency of Scripture, the Insufficiency of Man

Scripture, tradition, and the relationship between the two—it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

But the present manifestation of this conversation includes two sides talking past one another in a big way. One reason for this is the emerging divergence between two very different epistemologies. Presuppositionalism, broadly speaking—with its idealist DNA—makes Scripture the epistemological starting point of the Christian individual. Man’s idea of Scripture and Scripture itself are nearly the same. And this results in very little attention paid to man’s insufficiency once Scripture is presupposed as sufficient. It is generally assumed that the individual Christian has sole right in determining the proper interpretation of any given verse, chapter, or book of the Bible. Hence, the disdain of some for the tradition.

The classical Reformed position, on the other hand, understands there to be a distinction between Scripture as a source for our theology and our theology as it exists in the fallible mind. In other words, the fount of man’s theology is the text of Scripture, the principium cognoscendi, and man’s theology derives from that principle in an imperfect manner. (1 Cor. 13:12) This means Scripture is presupposed, but it is presupposed as a principle that leads to conclusions drawn by the fallible intellect. Naturally, therefore, we can admit these theological conclusions drawn from biblical exegesis to be fallible as well, while the source itself, Scripture, is infallible. Subsequently, a team effort in biblical interpretation becomes a needful service.

Scripture & the Tradition

Given the above explication, we should be readily able to see why the presuppositional milieu seems so allergic to the ministerial authority of tradition. Man presupposes the Scriptures in such a way that there’s functionally no difference between Scripture and man’s knowledge of Scripture. This cashes out in an infallible presupposition, or an infallible idea in man. In this one area, the knowledge of man is raised to an apostolic quality of infallibility. If Scripture is infallible, and there is no distinction between Scripture itself and man’s idea of it, man’s idea is infallible. And thus, it is no longer subject to peer scrutiny, say, from the tradition. It’s a simple matter of applying the law of identity and following the implications.

On the other hand, if classicalism is true, and Scripture acts as a perfect reservoir for our  imperfect theological knowledge, it follows that we might maintain Scripture’s unique attribute of infallibility while at the same time admitting man’s fallibility. And this leads us to the good and necessary use of secondary authorities. If man is fallible, he needs help to understand the infallible Scriptures aright. Biblical interpretation is not purely an individual exercise. It requires the Holy Spirit, as He works in the individual, but also as He has worked in believers past and present. Francis Turretin writes:

When we dispute at any time from the fathers against our adversaries, we use them only as witnesses, to approve by their vote the truth believed by us and to declare the belief of the church in their time. We do not use them as judges whose opinion is to be acquiesced in absolutely and without examination and as the standard of truth in doctrines of faith or in the interpretation of the Scriptures.[1]

In other words, while the fathers are not determinative of biblical meaning, as Rome conceived of them, they are witnesses unto the truth. They are the Democracy of the Dead. The peer review of theological discourse.

But not even this minimalized view of tradition may be granted if indeed our presupposition of the Scriptures is one and the same with the Scriptures themselves. If this is the case, to criticize the presupposer is to criticize what is presupposed. If Scripture and our idea of Scripture are identical, then subjecting ourselves to the voice of history is as bad as subjecting Scripture itself to the voice of men! In this scheme, to make man accountable to other men is to make Scripture accountable to man.

The Protestant View of Tradition

During the Reformation, two different views of tradition were forcefully advanced. There was “tradition 1” (T1), which taught the magisterial authority of Scripture, the meaning of which is witnessed by ministerial authorities, like creeds, confessions, the early church fathers, and biblical commentators. But “tradition 2” (T2) taught that there were two magisterial authorities, Scripture and tradition—the latter being able to create doctrines not found in the former. In the modern discourse, a “tradition 3” (T3) seems to emerge which rejects the place of tradition in theology entirely. Charitably, we might credit the (T3) position with maintaining a use for tradition, but what that use is is not abundantly clear. On (T3), tradition may be interesting, but it isn’t authoritative in any measure, and it rarely maps to the church’s contemporary situation.

For example, in a recent journal article, James White writes:

Just as in the days of the Reformation, citations and counter-citations of earlier church writings appear in the battles of our own day, whether in reference to the positions of Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, or any other system that claims to honor both Scripture and other external sources of authority (whether those sources are necessary for the interpretation of Scripture or whether they exist as co-equal or even superior authorities alongside of Scripture). But it is here that we must insist upon this maxim: Let the early church fathers be the early church fathers. That is, we must allow them to speak in their own context, to their own battles, in their own language. We cannot demand that they answer our questions and engage in our conflicts, nor can we assume that the battles back then were identical in form and substance to ours today. It is far, far too easy to abuse historical sources in the service of a cause or a movement. Rome has done this, and has done so authoritatively, by claiming her dogmas have been the “constant faith of the church” down through the ages. But Protestants, free of the dogmatic constraints of Rome’s infallible pronouncements, can still emphasize a particular lens through which the statements of earlier generations and previous centuries are filtered, giving a distorted view of earlier theologians’ actual beliefs. Ironically, such modern lenses are often constructed with carefully selected citations of the fathers by contemporary historians who insist that they are, in fact, simply walking in the tradition that has come down to them.[2]

Apparently, there is a severance between our time and their time. The issues they dealt with were their issues, and the issues we deal with are ours. The implication is startling. Their doctrinal conclusions were formed from issues unique to their time. And this leaves the reader scratching his head, asking, “Are their doctrinal conclusions to be left behind, as unique to their own day, as were their theological disputes?” Of course, Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us there is nothing new under the sun. So, one has to wonder what White intends to achieve by seemingly isolating the fathers and their problems to their historical context.

Furthermore, White’s engagement of his interlocutors simply fails to remark upon crucial aspects of (T1) and the Reformational doctrine of Sola Scriptura as the norma normans over subordinate authorities, norma normata. The “contemporary historians,” though not named in the above quote, presumably includes the historians and theologians White has been interacting with over the last year—a year which no doubt contextualizes the entire journal issue in which White’s article appears. And those particular historians and theologians, as far as I can tell, do not accept White’s presupposition that historical figures are adopted as idealistic “lenses” through which Scripture must be filtered. It has been unequivocally stated that Scripture is the source and principle of true theological knowledge, and that this source of knowledge is a document read by the Holy Spirit-filled individual with Holy Spirit-filled voices from the past. To use Turretin’s language, employment of the creeds, confessions, and historical commentary is the employment of “witnesses”—other minds which demonstrate that we ourselves are not going it alone.

The Insufficiency of Man

This brings me to what should be an elephant in the room: the insufficiency of man. Fundamental to the task of theology is the theologian’s humble acknowledgment of his own inadequacy. He has a keen awareness of Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” noting especially the present tense of his fallenness in that text. He confesses that his heart is accurately diagnosed by Jeremiah when he writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9)

Because of man’s inadequacy, the Holy Spirit turns the Christian to his fellow man, “Without counsel, plans go awry, But in the multitude of counselors they are established.” (Prov. 15:22) Through consort with his brothers, he gains a wider periphery. A single man can see, but many men can see more. He also gains accountability, and is less likely to chart his own, novel path. Heretics, though claiming love for the Scriptures, gain nothing but their own innovative opinions leading to their spiritual shipwreck. A helmsman needs a navigator to chart the sea.

Conclusion

Once we acknowledge the difference between the primacy and adequacy of the Scriptures versus our own inadequacy, we will clearly begin to see the need for a “multitude of counselors” when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological formulation. So long as Scripture and our commitment to it are seen as one and the same (some corners of presuppositionalism), man’s insufficiency figures less into the exegetical picture. So long as Scripture and man’s idea of it are the same, Scripture’s adequacy and man’s adequacy are one and the same. The result is an unfalsifiable, individual Bible interpreter that sets himself above the collective voice of the historical church. A self-made pope.

For these reasons, it would be best to understand Scripture as sufficient, man as inadequate, Scripture as chiefly authoritative, and tradition as a ministerial aid to man’s intellectual and ethical handicaps.

Resources:

[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. I, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 163.

[2] James White, “What Is Sola Scriptura,” Pro Pastor,Vol. 1, No. 1, FALL 2022, A Journal of Grace Bible Theological Seminary, 3-4.