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.

Conclusion

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.

Resources:

[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.

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

With the contemporary skeptical approach to natural theology has come an influx of Trinitarian and Christological errors. Why is this? Probably because a rejection of the natural truths God reveals about Himself through nature will inevitably lead to a rejection of those same truths even as they come through Scripture—or at least there will be a drastic reinterpretation of them. Immutability, simplicity, self-existence—all three may be known about God through natural revelation. This is what Thomas demonstrates in his Summa Theologiae, and it is what was understood to be the case in the first generation Reformers onward (cf. John Calvin’s Institutes, Book I).

What happens when the data of natural revelation falls by the wayside? The same data perfectly and perspicuously presented in the Scriptures is interpreted on the supposition of some other metaphysical or epistemological standard (admittedly or not). This other standard is what fills the vacuum left by the first principles given through nature. We are then left with the problem of biblicism. But with biblicism, one is not allowed to carry a natural understanding of God into the interpretive task in any measure. Scripture becomes the soul witness to immutability, simplicity, and self-existence. This is not in itself a problem, since Scripture ought to be received because it is from God—the highest Authority. But when the individual Bible-reader rejects the testimony of nature, Scripture becomes a wax nose formable to whatever philosophy he uncritically and unwittingly imbibes.

When Turretin says that natural theology functions 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] he means that man, as imago Dei, possesses a natural intellect providentially direct by God to appropriate Scriptural data. God’s Scriptural appeal is made to rational creatures. And when, by grace, a rational creature is made to accept and trust in the truth of Scripture, his rational appetites are not extinguished but improved. 

Biblicism rejects the reality of the light of reason before and after regeneration. It’s not that the biblicist doesn’t use the light of reason; it’s that he uses it unacknowledged. And rather than critically examine his own philosophical assumptions using the light of reason, keeping the good ones while exiling the bad ones, he refuses to acknowledge he has any philosophical assumptions at all even though he does. This unexamined life then leads to an always-shifting understanding of biblical meaning. 

If a person’s philosophical assumptions change, so will their interpretational approach to Scripture. Just observe the historical-causal connection between the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the church’s interpretational method before and after that period of time. Or, if you like, look at the theological changes that took place from the pre-modern era into the modern era. If philosophical assumptions are never given a voice, they’ll always be changing. A person can only consciously hold their position in place if they are conscious of it.

There is no approaching Scripture as a tabula rasa (blank slate), even after regeneration. A person is going to approach Scripture with some kind of a philosophical precommitment. Classical theism offers a transparent, commonsensical philosophy. Simply put, the light of nature prepares for the introduction of the light of Scripture. The light of nature informs our understanding of Scripture, and Scripture turns us back to nature so that we can understand it to a greater and more perfect extent. And thus, the classical theist may employ natural theology in service to specially revealed theology derived from the Scriptures. Those who reject classical theism cannot see how natural theology may be used in service to supernatural theology.

As a result, they not only remain happily ignorant of the sophisticated expression of the faith, found in the terminology of the creeds and confessions, they actively combat it. It is one thing to remain in ignorance, it is quite another to be confronted with further truths and react by recalcitrantly rejecting those truths. While one may permissibly be ignorant of the more articulate expression of the Christian faith, they do not have permission to reject that articulate expression of the Christian faith should it be true.

Resources:

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

Prudent Knowledge

Prudent Knowledge

The apostle Paul was an educator who deeply desired the intellectual growth of his brethren. A key reason for placing limits upon prophetic activity in the Corinthian church was, “that all may learn and all may be encouraged (1 Cor. 14:31).” He prayed for the Colossians church and disclosed his prayerful purpose in writing, “that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10).” Peter tells us that God’s “divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue (2 Pet. 1:3).” And it is to “virtue” that we are to add “knowledge (v. 5).” And this pays dividends in the form of growing in “the knowledge  of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 8).” Peter goes so far as to command us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2. Pet. 3:18).”

Maturity in theological knowledge, i.e. “the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10),” is a central imperative and admonishment dictated to the church in general throughout the pages of Scripture. This isn’t a trademark of the New Testament only. Such a thematic emphasis finds its background in numerous calls to knowledge in the Old Testament as well. For example, the supplication of the psalmist, “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, For I believe Your commandments (Ps. 119:66).” And in Proverbs 1:22 it is not the faithful who hate knowledge, but fools, “How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity? For scorners delight in their scorning, And fools hate knowledge.” Knowledge and the maturity therein is a pervasive concept in Scripture.

A Purposeful Ambiguity?

A quick read of the several “knowledge statements” found in both Old and New Testaments leaves one asking, “Okay, I know I should know. But, how much do I have to know?” Obviously, we would immediately want to include the essentials of the faith within the “things-we-must-know” category. But that’s not all we are called to know, and our first encounter with those precious doctrines is not to be our only encounter.

Such quantitative ambiguity appears to be intentional on God’s part. How much knowledge must we have beyond the essentials? The nebulous nature of this knowledge and the extent to which we are to know leaves room for a number of factors—from subjective aptitude levels to subjective levels of available information. Some people cannot learn the way others learn. First to fourth century Christians would have had severely limited access to a complete New Testament canon depending on their respective lifetimes and locations. Additionally, we live in a busy age, and most people are taken up with secular affairs and cannot afford to study like a seminary student, professor, or full-time pastor. Thus, Scripture doesn’t present us with a curriculum beyond the essentials of the faith which we are commanded to stringently teach and learn. Yet, we nevertheless know that the Christian is to yearn for more divine knowledge, and that such a love for God exists is clearly the spirit and goal behind the “learning imperatives.”

To Speak, or Not to Speak?

This raises an interesting question: Should we be content with the mere letter of the text of Scripture? In other words, isn’t it enough that we memorize Scripture, that is, the ink as it sits upon the page, rather than travel down deep theological holes? 

In light of the above biblical observations, the answer has to be, “no.” A man may memorize the entirety of Scripture, but that does not mean his learning has reached its end. The God Scripture reveals is infinitely glorious, and He has revealed Himself to us that we may know and unceasingly grow in knowing. Therefore, the text of Holy Writ boasts of fathomless depths which each and every Christian should desire to plumb. But this doesn’t mean every Christian must be equal in the extent to which they plumb. Jesus, in the parable of the talents, assumes God gives according to ability. Such language takes for granted not only differing abilities, but even various levels of the same ability, “And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey (Matt. 25:15).” And in Romans 12:6 Paul writes, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them…” And these gifts are given by God Himself, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven (Jn. 3:27).”

All Christians ought to press on to know God. Not all Christians will know God to the exact same degree. Some who know to a great degree will benefit others through the fruit of their intellectual labors. Others who do not know to a great degree may benefit from such fruits. Still, there are some who do not know to a great degree who desire to speak on things they do not yet understand to a sufficient degree. 

The first group is obeying God in seeking more knowledge. The second group is obeying God in seeking more knowledge. But the third group has a choice. It is not wrong to desire to teach that which is not yet understood by the would-be teacher. Teaching is a qualification for eldership after all, and the desire to be a teacher has to begin somewhere (1 Tim. 3:2). But those who speak publicly prior to first understanding the subject to be spoken of are disobeying God in speaking to things they do not yet understand. And this might result in a violation of the ninth commandment (Ex. 20:16), stumbling blocks in front of fellow saints (Mk. 9:42), slips into erroneous and dangerous doctrine, etc.

Therefore, while it is imperative we know God and grow in our knowledge of God, it is not imperative we all grow to the same degree. And it is especially not imperative we speak to doctrines we have not yet grown into. Quite the contrary. If we speak to that which we do not yet understand we may actually dishonor God, cause confusion among the saints, and fail to adorn the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Aquinas once wrote—

The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, A. 2).

In other words, while some men, endowed by their Creator, may take pains to explore the contours of divinity revealed through nature, those unable to do so—for any of the limiting reason mentioned above—may instead accept the same truths otherwise deduced according to the light of nature by faith in the divine Word set forth in Holy Scripture. Thus, those things which might be known of God through both nature and Scripture may justifiably be known by one or the other, but not necessarily both.

It is fitting that man should know God through wherever he might learn of Him—either through nature or Scripture. And though this is expected of those whom God has called and endowed to perform it, it is not required of man generally. This same principle might be applicable even to knowledge derived from Scripture. Not everyone will go on to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, or New Testament Greek. Not everyone will write a biblical theology like those penned by the hands of John Owen, Geerhardus Vos, or Greg Beale. Why? Not only are some not intellectually incapable of doing so, but some are providentially hindered by other God-given responsibilities.

Let us, therefore, humbly go forth according to the grace God has given each of us.

A Note on Political Theology

A Note on Political Theology

The Noahic Covenant remains because no place in Holy Scripture abrogates it. On the contrary, it assumes its continuance in places like Romans 13. It’s institution is neither causal nor characteristic of the domain of darkness (1 Jn. 1:5). But neither is it’s administration granted to the Redemptive Kingdom (kingdom of God). This is because the sword is instituted in the Noahic Covenant, and this is nowhere said to be a power of grace and faith but of nature and law.

The civil sphere is of the Noahic administration (or civil/common kingdom), and a necessary part of creation (Cf. Gen. 9). It may contextualize the Redemptive kingdom (the kingdom of God is in the world, not of the world), but its ordinances do not belong to the Redemptive kingdom. Romans 13 gives the “sword” to civil government, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God (v. 1).” At no point does Scripture grant the powers of the sword to the kingdom of God.

So, there is a domain of darkness (principalities, powers, etc). But distinctly, there are two kingdoms both of which are afflicted by that same domain and influenced by it in different ways, yet neither are ever defeated—the common/civil kingdom being upheld by common grace, and the Redemptive kingdom through special grace.

The common kingdom is the Noahic institution and administration which remains until the consummation and judgment. The Redemptive kingdom is the New Covenant and all which comes through it. The domain of darkness is the realm of the devil and his demons who were defeated by Christ and have been immutably sentenced to eternal damnation. This realm affects both the common and the Redemptive kingdoms at present, yet the common kingdom remains good in itself, and the Redemptive kingdom remains good in itself. And the domain of darkness will be finally extinguished upon the consummation.

The Kingdom & Its Implications

The Kingdom & Its Implications

If God speaks on earth, the people to whom He speaks are obligated to Him. The covenant established at Mt. Sinai was a covenant of law, the violation of which made one liable to judicial punishment. When God speaks on earth, He imposes upon His people a covenant they are obligated to keep upon pain of death. When God speaks from heaven, however, much less will those escape who refuse such a punctuated address. And indeed the way in which the Father has spoken to us in these latter days is through His Son, the Lord from heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). If Christ is refused, no hope remains. God has spoken from heaven through His Son, and in His Son, He has established a greater covenant through which comes a greater kingdom than that which came through the Mosaic covenant. The old things have been, are, and are being shaken and removed. The new things have come, are coming, and will come in Christ Jesus—an economy which will by no means fade away (Heb. 12:22-24).

The Conclusion to Hebrews 12:18-24

Hebrews 12:28-29 begins with a “therefore,” because it is drawing an important practical conclusion from what has thus far been said, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom…” This is only the third time in the whole of the epistle the term kingdom is utilized. In Hebrews 1:8, it was used when our author quoted from Psalm 45:6, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.” It was used in Hebrews 11:33, speaking of the faith who “subdued kingdoms.” And now, it is used a final time in Hebrews 12:28, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom…” What kingdom? What is the term kingdom in reference to? The term has not once been employed in ch. 12 until now. What, then, could possibly be its significance?

The Identity of “Kingdom” in v. 28

There has been much speculation as to the identity and timing of God’s kingdom. Contemporary speculation on the kingdom of God tends to domesticate and separate the kingdom from Christ and His work, and it fails to account for present-kingdom language used throughout the New Testament. Moreover, it often cannot account for how the Old Testament relates the kingdom of Christ with His first, not second, coming. Some believe the kingdom has not yet been established, and that it is a future-only reality. Others believe the kingdom has been established to such a degree such that there is nothing but the kingdom of God in the here and now. Everything is the kingdom of God, or so it is thought. I do not think either of these positions account for the biblical data. One reason for this is our text, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom…” The term for “are receiving” is in the present tense. This kingdom is, at present, being received by God’s people. In fact, we could render it more strongly, “Therefore, since we are taking a kingdom…”

The kingdom is something all Christians receive or take in the here and now. But, what about its identity? We know it is present to us. But what is present to us? We have to remember how v. 28 begins, “Therefore…” It is a conclusion. Moreover, this kingdom is one that “cannot be shaken.” We should also remember that vv. 25-27 and its contrast between shakable and unshakable things corresponds to the contrast in vv. 18-24, that between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion—the mountain of terror and the mountain of glory. Thus, the mountain of glory and all it entails is one and the same with the unshakable things. And the unshakable things are summarized by our author using the term kingdom. What is the kingdom of God? Verses 22-24 tells us: Zion, heavenly Jerusalem, the church, God, His Christ, the New Covenant, and justification, i.e. the sprinkling of the blood “that speaks better things than that of Abel.”

If this is not the kingdom, it follows that our author introduces an entirely new concept in v. 28. But such a new introduction would not help his purpose. If his purpose is to motivate his audience unto godliness through vv. 22-24, i.e. Mt. Zion and all it entails, he would not introduce something new and altogether separate in v. 28. So, the kingdom, I contend, just is what is described in vv. 22-24—God, His Christ, His Covenant, His people, that is, His kingdom. Some do not understand the church to be God’s kingdom. It is true that the church at present is not the sum total of the kingdom. But the church does constitute the people of the kingdom. “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love… (Col. 1:13).” Who is conveyed into the kingdom? “Us,” Christians—the church. The church is the citizenry of Christ’s kingdom, and this is made necessary by vv. 22-24 where it is the church who dwells atop Mt. Zion in heavenly Jerusalem. Thus, Christ’s kingdom is now. It is being received at present by all true believers. And the identity of Christ’s kingdom is found in vv. 22-24—the unshakable inheritance of all those who are in Christ Jesus.

Implications of the Kingdom

Yet, our passage moves beyond the unshakable kingdom now to certain implications of the reality of this kingdom. “Since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken,” our text says, “let us have grace…” We are here admonished to “have grace.” And it is this grace “by which we may serve God acceptably…” Apart from grace, it is impossible to serve God in any kind of acceptable manner. And this grace is both justifying and sanctifying grace—justifying, that our works may be acceptable before God in Christ; sanctifying, that we would be enabled to perform such works in the first place. And thus, as John Owen notes, this admonishment to “have grace” is nothing more than an exhortation toward perseverance in the gospel. And it is the grace of the gospel which, in turn, moves us to “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.”

By grace, we serve God acceptably. In what manner do we serve God? “With reverence and godly fear.” We need to look at both of these terms individually. The term for reverence (αἰδώς) could literally be rendered modesty. The primary lexical connotation is to have a sense of shame. The idea here is to serve God humbly, having a lowly disposition rather than one that exalts man in a proud or irreverent manner. To revere someone is to observe their superiority to yourself. We revere others because their accomplishments and reputations far outshine our own, and thus they seem special and deserving of our undivided attention. How much more ought we revere God, who is Himself beyond us—our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer!

The second term employed is “godly fear.” If read narrowly, this term could almost be synonymous with the term reverence. But “godly fear” denotes more of a recognition of God’s awesomeness, His sublimity, magnificence, etc. To serve God in godly fear is to serve God whilst consumed by the overwhelming glory of our Triune God. For those who stand in awe of a king have no time to disobey—they are too taken by his character and majestic appearance. So too, if we labor to stand in awe of our God through contemplation of the divine essence, less time we have to disobey and much more strength we will have to obey.

An Ominous Reality for Those Outside the Kingdom

In v. 29, our author solidifies this point by returning to the holy nature of God, “For our God is a consuming fire.” This is an application of the terror of God as seen atop Mt. Sinai, “The sight of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel (Ex. 24:17).” You may be wondering, “But I thought we came to Mt. Zion, where there is no terror or wrath, not Mt. Sinai!” This is true. But those who are without the gospel still relate to God just as the disobedient Israelites did in those days under the law. All those who are without the gospel are, by nature, transgressors. And so all they see, all they will experience with a veiled face, is YHWH shrouded in smoke along with His threats and condemning wrath. The admonishment in v. 28 is to persevere in the gospel. The threat of v. 29 is not a threat of the New Covenant (the New Covenant has no threats toward its members, since it’s unbreakable), but a threat toward those who would not persevere, thereby proving their apostacy and condemnation under the law. Without the gospel, outside the New Covenant, there is only the condemnation of the moral law—the same moral law issued upon the stormy, smoky, fiery Mt. Sinai.

Uncovering Simplicity in Scripture

Uncovering Simplicity in Scripture

The term “simplicity” is not in the Bible. 

Much less is the term “simplicity” as it applies to the divine essence found in the Bible. Like the word “Trinity,” the word “simplicity” eludes those making the demand for an express, biblical reference. So, how do we know if it’s biblical? 

For those just joining the discussion, divine simplicity is a doctrine which states, “God is not composed.” Composed of what? “Anything,” we might respond with every shred of accuracy. However, the classical terminology has been, “God is not composed of parts.” The gist is that God is not an aggregate of anything that is more basic than Himself which makes Him to be what He is. God is not the sum of attributes, properties, or even Persons. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/89) puts it this way: “[God is] a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions… (2.1).” We might simply say, along with Dr. James Dolezal, All That Is In Godis God.

Recently, this doctrine has been charged as being the product of nothing more than an over-realization of Greek philosophical categories within the sphere of sacred Christian theology. It is the stuff of Aristotle; and it, if consistently believed, lands one squarely within the bounds of deism—where God is a seemingly lifeless, emotionless, cold deity disconnected from His creation. An additional charge is that simplicity represents Roman Catholic hangovers on the part of theologians like Stephen Charnock and Francis Turretin. After all, the preeminent scholastic defender of simplicity Thomas Aquinas, a Roman Catholic, set out to offer a synthesis between Aristotle and the Christian faith. These are two charges which amount to nothing more than genetic fallacies if taken alone. Simply because Aristotle or Aquinas say or write something does not automatically entail invalidation or lack of soundness in their argumentation. Aristotle systematized the logical system our entire world depends upon for any measure of real-world interaction or productivity; I doubt we want to throw that baby out with his otherwise dirty pagan bathwater.

Nevertheless, such charges have led many, well-meaning Christians to ask the question, “How do we know these doctrines weren’t invented by men? How can we know whether or not doctrines like simplicity are true, sound… biblical?

Exegetical Assumptions

I do not want to spend a great time dealing with the a priori assumptions Christians (must) make before coming to the text of Scripture. But every Christian ought to agree that there are things that must be true if Scripture is to have even an ounce of meaning. First, the laws of logic must hold. The laws of logic determine the impossibility of contradictions actually obtaining. In other words, without the laws of logic, anything would go, and there would be no discernibly objective meaning in the world—Scripture not excepted. Second, the basic reliability of sense perception must also hold. We come to the text of Scripture assuming not only that it exists, but that we, the readers, exist as well. Moreover, we assume we, the readers, can apprehend the supposed object of knowledge—the Scriptures in this case.

I would press further and say that we assume God exists prior to coming to the Scriptures. Scripture itself witnesses both to the universal knowledge of God’s existence in Romans 1, and a compulsory law to obey God revealed through nature in Romans 2. Therefore, there is a God and we must obey Him. This provides sufficient, motivational reason to not only read the Bible, but also to obey the claims of the Bible as well. Furthermore, this God has revealed certain attributes through His creation. Simplicity is a doctrine pertaining to God that can be demonstrated through nature via what has been labeled the neo-Platonic proof by Edward Feser—an argument from composite contingency to non-composite necessity. In his words, “The Neo-Platonic proof is an argument from the existence of things that are composite to a first cause that is absolutely simple or non-composite.”

That all created things are composite, in one way or another, means they are caused, i.e. by their constituent parts. This composition cannot continue ad infinitum up or down. The further we drill down into a thing, the more composite parts we find. The higher up we go, e.g. through the solar system, galaxies, universe, etc., the more composite parts we find. But this cannot go on forever. There must be a first cause responsible for the composition of creation in the first place. And that first cause cannot itself be composed, since in that case it would also need an explanation outside itself. This first thing must be, in a word, simple.

Exegetical Reasons for Simplicity

Even if readers take issue with what I have set forth above, the doctrine of simplicity isn’t only revealed through nature but through Scripture as well. Prior to giving a few exegetical reasons for simplicity, I want to be clear that I assume the possibility of good and necessary inference. According to this rule, there are things taught in the Scriptures that are not expressly set forth. One obvious example is the doctrine of the Trinity. Another example might be a covenant of works in the Garden of Eden between God and Adam. And yet, another example would be language of incarnation, a term not found in Scripture explicitly but necessarily taught by it. These are all terms accurately applied in Christian theology precisely because they are taught by Scripture. But they are taught implicitly in many cases, not explicitly.

Moving on, I want to quickly note how Genesis 1:1 necessarily implies the simplicity of God. It says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” If God created all things, it follows He is simple. Why? Because that which is composed is composed of parts more basic than itself upon which it depends to be what it is. A thing that depends is caused by that upon which it depends. Therefore, if God created all things, He is not caused. If He is not caused, then He is simple, since to be composed is to be caused.

The next place we will visit is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” The natural question is, “One what?” At bare minimum, we should answer, “one substance.” Or, we might say, “one essence.” “YHWH our Elohim, YHWH one!” we might more woodenly render the text. This is, among other things, a substantial statement of identification. The text isn’t only telling us there is one God. That is true enough. It is telling us this God, of which there is only one, is one. This is a statement of identity that could not be said about any created object, human or otherwise. It would not be accurate to say “Josh is one” in this sense because Josh is not one substance per se, but a conglomerate of several substances which go into making Josh what he is. When the Israelites said, “YHWH one!” they were making the definitive claim that their God does not depend upon stuff, matter, parts to be what He is. This was relevant to a godly nation surrounded by idolatrous peoples whose gods were made of wood, stone, precious metals, etc. The shema not only exclusivised the God of Israel as the only true God, but it also proclaimed Him to be uncaused by constituent parts, as the heathen gods no doubt were.

There is an interplay between the doctrine of simplicity and that of immutability. Malachi 3:6 says, “For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” Malachi 3:6 is not telling us God does not change because He chooses not to change. Malachi 3:6 removes change from God altogether. We could render the text, “For I am the LORD, unchanging…” How does this relate to simplicity? If God does not change, that is, if there is no possibility of change in God, then it follows there are no parts in God. If there were parts in God, we could conceive of there being one or two less parts than there are, which would represent a possibility for change through a subtraction of His parts. In this case, God could change, contrary to the bold claim made by YHWH Himself in Malachi 3:6. Moreover, at bare minimum, a God who could change would be composed of actuality and potentiality. That is, He would be, and He would also have the potential to be otherwise. But since God does not composed, He is not made up of actuality and potentiality, but is only actuality—pure actuality. Therefore, God does not change.

Conclusion

This article is not intended to be an academic treatise on the exegetical proofs for divine simplicity. It is only a primer intended to communicate the presence of exegesis behind this all-important article of orthodoxy. The doctrine of simplicity is not devoid of biblical support. It is not, contrary to common perception, the stuff of over-theoretical philosophers and theologians. It has been featured in the theological work of John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Franciscus Junius, and other post-Reformed Puritans complete with exegetical support and practical application. It is a doctrine upon which the Christian faith stands or falls. If God is composed, He is caused. If He is caused, He is not God. If God is not composed, He is not caused, He is independent, a se, etc., and the hope of the Christian church remains well-founded.

Drink deeply of this far-reaching doctrine, saints.