Covenant Theology II | Jesus, Plus Some Other Stuff?

Covenant Theology II | Jesus, Plus Some Other Stuff?

In this second installment I will be addressing more of Henebury’s efforts to explain covenant theology to his readers. At this point, he still has not descended into the weeds because he’s just trying to steelman covenant theology by discerning its controlling principles. He’s setting up the rest of his series, and this is commendable. Where many might not take the time to do this, Henebury is genuinely attempting to understand and represent his interlocutors well. I hope I can return the favor in this article and the forthcoming installments.

What (or Who) is the Old Testament about? That is the central question of this piece. I am particularly focused on three paragraphs in this second article of Henebury’s. They read as follows:

What I want to point out is that there are two assertions here not one. The first assertion is that without the NT the OT “would remain largely veiled to us.” The second is that “we would see Christ only dimly.”

 

While there is no doubt that the second assertion is spot on, what about the first opinion? Notice that the whole OT is basically being boiled down to the figure of Christ. But although Christ is certainly crucial to the OT, isn’t it true that the Hebrew Bible is about more than Him? What about the covenants that God pledges to Israel and His election of them? What about Jerusalem and the temple? What about David’s throne in Jerusalem? Aren’t these perfectly clear as given by the OT? According to CT (and NCT’s) the answer is No! How come?

 

I think Brown & Keele answer this question well from a CT perspective. The thing to keep in mind, they tell us, is that there are in fact two distinct stages of fulfillment. The first level of fulfillment is what could be expected from the words God chose to use in the original contexts. But the second level of fulfillment is different.

What Is the Old Testament About?

Earlier, in his illustration designed to describe how outsiders perceive the hermeneutics of covenant theology, Henebury compares the interpretive priority of the New Testament required by covenant theology to a person who uses a secondary source (authored by a radical liberal critic) to understand a primary source (Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo). To bring our understanding of the New Testament into Old Testament interpretation is, for the dispensationalist, an “intrusion of an outside view upon the plain text of Scripture.”

In my lengthy quotation of Henebury above, he takes aim at the covenant theologian’s assumption that the Old Testament is reducible to the “figure of Christ,” at least as it regards understanding the significance thereof. But what if the New Testament itself invites us to make such an assumption? For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul writes, “But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.” Required to understand the Old Testament is repentance and faith in Christ, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (v. 16)

In this instance, Henebury is responding to Brown & Keele’s book, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored. In that book, they essentially second what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:14. They write:

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for our preoccupation with the New Testament. If the Bible were a building, the New Testament would be the penthouse suite; it reveals in glory and clarity Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior. The gospel in all its simple sweetness graces the pages of the Greek portion of Holy Scripture. Without it, the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us, and we would see Christ only dimly. (101-102)

Henebury implies Brown & Keele deny that the Old Testament concerns covenants other than the gospel, the nation of Israel, David’s throne, etc. But even if they did elsewhere, that is not what Brown & Keele say in the section Henebury interacts with. Instead, they insinuate Christ as the interpretive key to a full understanding of the Old Testament. There is nothing substantially different in what they say and what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians. One must understand the Old Testament in light of Christ, otherwise, it will remain veiled as Moses’ face was veiled, thus preventing the people from seeing the glory of God. (Ex. 34:35)

What About All the Other Stuff?

I doubt Henebury would deny the need for evangelical faith in order to rightly understand the Old Testament. The controversy resides in what to do with all the other stuff: Israel, the Davidic throne, the promised land of Canaan, future promises revealed in the Old Testament for Israel, etc. How do we account for these things? Henebury, presumably, would argue that we need to account for these things on the Old Testament’s own terms. But, given that these sweeping categories virtually subsume the whole of the Old Testament, they themselves could only be understood properly in light of Christ. If we try to understand them on the Old Testament’s own terms, neglecting the fuller revelation of God in the New Testament, we essentially try to read the Old Testament as the unconverted Jew does, practically rejecting the significance of the new covenant.

To be consistent with such a hermeneutical commitment would eventually land us in messianic Judaism or simply Judaism, being unable to read the Pentateuch in light of Hebrews 8:13 with its abrogation of the Mosaic covenant. To be clear, I’m not accusing Henebury of actually being a messianic Judaizer. But his method of understanding the Old Testament revelation strictly according to the Old Testament’s own terms would seemingly lead to a systemic rejection of any interpretive import from the New Testament.

Furthermore, what about Isaiah 53? How would one see the full sense of Isaiah 53 apart from the New Testament? To this day, Jews do not see Jesus in Isaiah 53. They see national Israel. Why is this? Could it be because the veil remains drooped over their hearts? They must turn to Christ, the Great Expositor of the Old Testament, to understand Isaiah 53 correctly. What about Isaiah 7? I’ll never forget my Old Testament survey class at a notoriously dispensational institution located in Southern California. We were not permitted to read Christ out of Isaiah 7. Isaiah 7, we were told, was all about Mahershalalhashbaz. This might as well have been our conclusion if it weren’t for the formula quotation in Matthew 1:22-23, “So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’” The New Testament teaches us how to understand the Old Testament.

In the final paragraph I quoted in the introduction of this article, Henebury describes “two distinct stages of fulfillment.” According to Henebury’s understanding of Brown & Keele, covenant theology holds that “the first level of fulfillment is what could be expected from the words God chose to use in the original contexts.” A more preferred term for this “first level,” in my estimation, might be the immediate sense. Some have called it the historical sense. But Henebury notes an additional level, but “[this] second level of fulfillment is different.” This “second level” we would rather call the fuller sense (sensus plenior). I believe this is what Brown & Keele are getting at, though the term “level” isn’t ideal.

The fuller sense isn’t wholly different from the historical sense anymore than a tree is wholly different from an acorn. The genetic coding for a full-grown tree resides inside the acorn, otherwise the acorn could never finally give way to the tree. The information inherent within the acorn anticipates and provides for later growth. Conversely, this later growth reveals the potential and purpose of the acorn in the first place, that is, to grow into a tree of this or that height, girth, etc. This analogy rings of Augustine’s well-known maxim, “The new [testament] is in the old [testament] concealed; the old is in the new revealed.” The tree is in the acorn concealed (DNA), the acorn is in the tree revealed (brought to its telos or goal).

Thus, it is not so much that there are two discontinuous and unrelated “levels” of meaning in the Old Testament, the second of which is only to be disjointedly introduced in the New. Rather, it is the case that the fullness of the Old Testament’s original meaning is brought to maturity in the pages of the New Testament or, more simply, in Christ Himself. For it is Christ who explains the whole of the Old Testament in light of Himself, “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Lk. 24:27) Note, the text does not tell us that Jesus interpreted some of the Scriptures in light of Himself, but it was “in all the Scriptures” (ἐν πάσαις ταῖς γραφαῖς) that our Lord had occasion to teach the things concerning Himself.

Introducing the Land “Problem”

This will be a theme to which we will return later on in the series. However, at this point Henebury introduces the issue of the land of Canaan and its eschatological significance and so I will speak to it briefly. He writes:

According to this “levels of fulfillment” view the covenant promises of God about seed and land were fulfilled in OT times. Brown and Keele, following many CT’s, say that the land promise was fulfilled at the time of Joshua (see Joshua 21:21:43-45, Ibid, 92). Having placed the land promise in the past the next stage of fulfillment can be given all the attention. In CT God ‘s fulfillment of the land promise to Israel, having occurred already, can be made into a foreshadowing of something else; something greater. And this “something greater” is realized at the first advent as a result of “Christ’s person and work.”

According to Henebury, Brown & Keele note the unequivocal fulfillment text in Joshua 21:43, “So the LORD gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it.” This is a significant problem for those who make the claim that the land promise was never fulfilled in the Old Testament. It obviously was. But nothing in dispensationalism requires such a hard claim. Some dispensationalists may as well make room for two or more fulfillments of the same promise, and even view a measure of escalation in each fulfillment.

However, given my above thesis, that the New Testament itself requires we read the Old Testament in light of it, the land of Canaan, like the acorn, was certainly destined for a higher purpose. Its purpose was to grow into something greater. I believe this can be seen in the Old Testament, such as in Isaiah 57:13, where the land is given by faith, which was not how the land was originally given to the descendants of Abraham. Those descendants were required to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law inherently implied by circumcision following the Sinaitic covenant. (Gal. 5:3) Nevertheless, it is the New Testament that unfolds the original purpose and significance of both the law and the land, “But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:16)

Texts like Hebrews 11:16 teach us that the land of Canaan was only a foretaste of that which was to come and that which was ultimately desired by the Old Testament saints. The heavenly country in Hebrews 11:16 isn’t the land of Canaan, per se, and it isn’t distinctively Jewish as many dispensationalists would have it. Hebrews 12:18-24 later defines this heavenly Jerusalem as something possessed by the saints. It comes with the receiving of the kingdom (v. 28), and it is unshakable. Its immovable nature suggests transcendence of the millennial period which most dispensationalists envisage to represent a temporary state of affairs taking place just prior to the new heavens and new earth. Such a heavenly Jerusalem should be connected to the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (v. 2) More on this throughout.

Conclusion

None of the above, of course, registers as valid hermeneutical discourse if the New Testament is set aside during the process of interpretation. If the Old Testament can only be read in terms of the Old Testament, then we are forced to do what the New Testament authors themselves did not do, namely, refuse to read the Old Testament in light of the incarnation, sufferings, and glory of our Lord. 

I like the illustration Henebury uses to describe how the covenant theologian thinks of his own position, “People had been watching everything in black and white and they were used to it. When color TV’s were brought home they brought so much life to the screen. It was a new world. People were seeing the actors and their backgrounds and their cars in a brand new and vibrant ways. You could see better! That is similar to the way CT’s understand the way the NT changes the way we look at what had come before it.” The Old meaning doesn’t become irrelevant with the New. Rather, it comes into focus. It comes into its own. And it does so only in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Resources

Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom, (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2020).

G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).

 

Covenant Theology I | The Bible According to the Bible

Covenant Theology I | The Bible According to the Bible

This will be the first installment within a series of a number of posts. It will be in partial response to Paul Martin Henebury, who calls himself “Dr. Reluctant”—being what he terms a “reluctant dispensationalist.” He is the innovator of a position called “biblical covenantalism,” which appears to be a relatively new project aimed at synthesizing(?) elements of covenant theology with dispensational theology. He wrote a lengthy post series critical of covenant theology per se, usually poking at the Westminster brand represented by men like Guy Waters and Geerhardus Vos. I will be responding to this post series as a Baptist, disagreeing with both Henebury and his main interlocutors—the Presbyterians—as I go along.

The other purpose of this “counter series” will be to hopefully clarify the confessional Baptist position, and to show that, without it, there is no such thing as Baptist theology, let alone Particular Baptist theology. I, of course, do not mean that every Baptist holds to Baptist covenant theology (henceforth, 1689 federalism). But many Baptists want the conclusions of Baptist distinctives without the exegetical-theological assumptions that actually get them there. Dispensationalism and its hermeneutic, though popularly held in Baptist circles, is not a Baptist system, originating with John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. That said, its assumptions cannot consistently bring one to a conviction of Baptist polity, the law/gospel distinction, or baptism.

In this first post, I only want to summarily define my own position and address some of Henebury’s starting assumptions. 

My Position

When I say “1689 federalism,” I mean the view of the biblical covenants set forth by the 1677/89 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith and its framers. In that confession, readers will pick up on a few relevant terms: the covenant of redemption which the confession alludes to as a “covenant made between them both,” i.e., Father and Son, appearing in chs. 7 & 8; the “covenant of works,” mentioned in chs. 19-20; and the “covenant of grace,” mentioned in chs. 7, 14, 15, and 17. It should be noted that there are multiple covenants of works in addition to the Adamic covenant in the garden found throughout the Old Testament, each obliging the vassal party to some kind of obedience in view of a reward with curses in the event of disobedience. A few of these are the covenant of circumcision, the Mosaic covenant, and the Davidic covenant. The only free grace covenant is the covenant cut in the blood of Christ—the new covenant/covenant of grace. These covenants of works serve, but are not themselves, the new covenant. Historically, Baptists have made these distinctions in order to preserve believing church membership and the integrity of the free offer of the gospel, both of which concerns arise from the nature of the new covenant itself.

Looking now at the language of the confession, the “covenant made between them both,” refers to what has been called the pactum salutis, or the covenant of redemption. This has typically been characterized as a “covenant transaction” (cf. ch. 7) occurring eternally in the past amongst the members of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our modern notions of “transaction” need to be qualified. The confession is not intimating a give and take dynamic between Father, Son, and Spirit. We consider transactions this way because, as creatures, to transact we must undergo a process. Since process is altogether removed from God, given His immutability, we are pressed to understand transactionary language, as applied to the Godhead, as a creaturely way of speaking about the plan of redemption as it exists eternally and incomprehensibly in God’s decree. The sending of the Son, the obligation of the Son to fulfill what He was sent to do, and the reward the Son receives as the outcome together warrant the language of covenant. Though all these things terminate upon the human nature of Christ in time, they reflect something of the timeless decretal plan of God which, as it unfolds in the economy, is covenantal in nature.

The “covenant of works” is, broadly, any covenant in which one’s participation requires an act of obedience on his or her part. Adam, for example, was obligated to obey God. Upon his failure to do so, he was estranged from the terms of the original agreement. This may be called a covenant. Though the word “covenant” is not present, the essential ingredients are. For the 1689 federalist, the covenant of works first appears in the garden. There is also a covenant of works made between God and Abraham’s descendants in Genesis 15 and 17. Presbyterians deny that the Abrahamic covenant was a covenant of works, instead seeing it as a covenant of grace. But Baptists have always been keen to point out the violable nature of the Abrahamic covenant apparent in Genesis 17:14, i.e., the possibility of being “cut off.” A covenant from which a person can be cut off is, by definition, not a covenant given by free grace.

The “covenant of grace,” for the 1689 federalist, is synonymous with the new covenant. The new covenant is the covenant of grace because it is neither entered into nor sustained by means of the participant’s obedience. For the 1689 federalist, the new covenant is the only saving covenant. And though it had not yet been established in the Old Testament, it was nevertheless revealed and served as the object of faith for Old Testament saints. Christ and His shed blood, which just is the new covenant (cf. Is. 49:8), affects the salvation of all those in Him, regardless of whether they lived under the Abrahamic and/or Mosaic covenants.

The above is a brief overview of my position. I’m sure questions remain. However, more details will hopefully be brought forth and clarified in my interaction with Henebury.

Henebury’s Starting Assumptions

First, and most importantly, Henebury begins by implying his rejection of deductive interpretation. The deeper assumption at play here is that of methodical naturalism, which, as applied to biblical hermeneutics, treats the Bible as any other document in terms of deciphering its subject-matter. As long as the literary-scientific method is applied properly, it will yield the correct exegetical conclusions… or so it is thought. Unfortunately, this is the method taken for granted at University, Seminary, and even in most churches. It rolls downhill from the 18th century Enlightenment, a time foreboding of supernatural assumptions and allergic to the application of faith to any contingent phenomena, including the Bible. Intertextuality is only observed, never employed as an exegetical informant. On this view, Bible readers should not follow Christ or the apostles in how they interpret the text. They must, instead, foist their own methodological assumptions upon it in the form of the exclusive employment of the historical-critical method.

To cut through these bad assumptions, we might simply ask whether or not such assumptions are exemplified by the biblical authors themselves. The answer, of course, would be clearly negatory upon final analysis. For example, let’s take Henebury’s claim, “If these covenants have good biblical standing and are not superimposed upon the Bible via a deductive system of theology then they will surely put in an appearance in the scholarly literature of all kinds of interpreters.” The implication here is that deduction, or beginning with a concept from which may be deduced further implications, is something to be shunned by the Bible interpreter. Ironically, there is nothing in Scripture itself forbidding deductive interpretation in principle. And there are countless examples of the biblical authors making deductions from Old Testament texts in light of the finished work of Jesus Christ.

The whole  first chapter of Hebrews is a stunning example of how this is the case. In particular, Hebrews 1:5b directly applies 2 Samuel 7:14 to Christ. Such was a text that itself historically applied immediately to Solomon. But, in light of the finished work of our Lord, the author of Hebrews reads 2 Samuel 7:14 in a Christocentric and Christotelic way, not because the meaning changed (and thus needed re-interpreted), but because the meaning that had always been present was subsequently illumined by the coming of Son of God. The several formula quotations in the gospel according to Matthew are another such example of reading the Old Testament in light of the coming of Christ, that is, deductively.

The first move in response to the above might be an appeal to the doctrine of inspiration. The author of Hebrews was inspired, therefore, he could make such verbose interpretive conclusions. But such implies that, given inspiration, the author of Hebrews could perceive a meaning no one else could have seen. Talk about “hidden meaning”! Furthermore, such an appeal to inspiration virtually neuters the concepts of Christologic and apostolic examples. Is Jesus our example? If so, isn’t Jesus’ method of interpretation our example as well? Are the apostles our example? If so, should we not then follow their interpretive practice? Who else’s example do we have, after all?

Henebury may have a point if by “deduction” he referred to extra-biblical concepts read into the text which would do harm to the meaning of the text itself. But he’s not using the term in this way. Instead, he chides Brown & Keele for reading Genesis 3:15 in light of Galatians 3. The Enlightenment skepticism Henebury has inadvertently imbibed and worked into his own biblical exegesis causes him to doubt the traditionally accepted reading of Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium. Henebury writes, “I realize that this ‘proto-evangelium’ is supposed to promise a Savior, but does it?  The remarks are addressed to the serpent and imply his doom.  There is nary a word about redemption from sin.” The obvious question, of course, is, “If Genesis 3:15 doesn’t promise a Savior, how could anyone living between Adam and Abraham be saved, e.g., Abel?” If salvation came in any other form than Christ, there would have had to be a different way of salvation for them than there is for us. A startling implication to be sure, and one of the main reasons the hermeneutical commitments undergirding dispensationalism ought to be rejected.

Furthermore, if God is the single-unifying mind behind the Scriptural narrative at large, given inspiration, then it follows He is the best commentator upon His own Word. When we “read Galatians into Genesis,” we’re not doing violence to Genesis anymore than the biblical authors themselves were. We’re reading Genesis in light of what else the Supreme Author of Genesis has said in relation to the topic at hand, which, in this case, is the gospel itself.

The second thing Henebury does in his first post is allege that covenant theologians are “storytellers.” He says, “Covenant theologians tell ‘stories.’  The stories are persuasive because they are God-centered, Christological, NT oriented, and coherent (at least apparently).” Leaving aside the fact that “God-centered” interpretation must necessarily be correct, this only works to form a bias in the mind of his readers against covenant theology at the outset of his prolonged series. It muddies the waters and makes it seem as if Henebury lacks objectivity in the evaluation of his interlocutors. 

Furthermore, given the limited extent to which he actually interacts with the relevant source material throughout his series, he is unable to demonstrate the truth of this statement to any sufficient degree. Of course, if by “story” he means the Bible’s own intertextual nature, then he would once again be hard pressed to demonstrate that such a “story” is, in fact, unbiblical. All 66 books of the Bible are related to one another and work toward a central and climatic goal at the beckon call of its Divine Author. This means something for our interpretation, especially as we observe how subsequent revelation regularly and directly clarifies and explains antecedent revelation. More on this as we continue.

Conclusion

At the outset of his criticism, Henebury made two mistakes that will affect his own later critique and the objectivity of his readers. His first mistake is the unequivocal rejection of deductive interpretation. At this point, he has not even tried to demonstrate why deductive interpretation is wrong. And I do not think he could successfully do so while assuming his own hermeneutical pre-commitments. Leaving aside the fact that deduction, at some level, is necessary, there is neither biblical command nor example against deduction per se in Scripture. And, in fact, there is ample instruction and example in the other direction, that is, deducing Old Testament meaning in light of the illumination offered by the incarnation, sufferings, and glory of our Lord. (cf. Lk. 24:27)

Furthermore, Henebury unfortunately characterizes his interlocutors as “storytellers.” This muddies the waters by poorly characterizing those with whom he’s interacting. It makes it sound as if we prefer our stories rather than the biblical text. As someone who was once a dispensationalist and is now a 1689 federalist, I can confidently say that I would not have reached this position if I thought it had been crafted upon conjectural stories. The main reason I left dispensationalism was precisely because its hermeneutical principles could not keep up with that of Scripture’s own self-interpretation. The method of dispensationalism is not the method of the Bible. We must interpret the Bible as the Bible teaches us to interpret the Bible.

Resources:

Samuel Renihan, From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), (Oxford: Center for Baptist History and Heritage Studies, 2018).

Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom, (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2020).

Nehemiah Coxe & John Owen, Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, (Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005).

John Calvin & Tradition

John Calvin & Tradition

John Calvin, the 16th century Reformational giant, highly regarded the theological tradition preceding him.

This is not to say that he wholesale adopted everything handed down to him from previous generations. It is to say, however, that he highly valued the continuity of the core Christian faith as it had been transmitted from the early church onward. As Dr. Richard Muller mentions, “Calvin assumed the catholicity of the Reformation and, accordingly, the continuity of the Reformation with the Christian truths taught by the church fathers…”[1] While Calvin in no wise considered the truth of the Scriptures contingent upon the judgment of the church, he nevertheless made the assumption that there were some things Christians have always believed concerning what the Scriptures teach, and that these things couldn’t be denied without calling into question the integrity of the Scriptures themselves.

The goal of this article is to set forth an earnest and brief survey of Calvin’s use of those subordinate authorities, particularly as they exist in the early creeds of the Christian church.

The Use of the Term “Tradition” In the Early Reformation

In the 16th century, “tradition” was a technical term denoting a coordinate authority alongside Scripture. The “tradition” of the Roman Catholic church was an ecclesiastical prerogative to infallibly interpret Scripture and implement long-standing practices that themselves did not exist in Scripture at all. Tradition was something other than the Scriptures, and it was binding. Pope Pius IX once remarked, “Tradition! I am tradition!” An apt summary, perhaps, of how the collective whole of the Romish institution thought of itself.

Since “tradition,” as a term, was technically limited to Rome’s conception of it, such a word did not enjoy wide-spread positive use among the Reformers. Today, when we say “tradition,” we might be referring to anything and everything that may have been handed down from one generation to the next. Family traditions, political traditions, and religious traditions are all considered traditionary. We no longer assume Rome’s monopoly on tradition, rightly so. And, within the writings of the Reformers, it can be seen that they themselves made appeal to what would formally constitute exegetical and theological traditions, indicating they did not, of course, do away with tradition, per se.

Calvin on the Superiority of “Conciliar” Interpretation Over Individual Interpretation

Calvin generally thought of biblical interpretation as a task to be done in concert with the rest of the Christian church. It was not predominantly an individualist effort, but a churchly one. He writes:

We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it.[2]

That the whole would have more weight than the parts becomes an evident sentiment throughout Calvin’s work. It’s obvious enough that he’s working within an interpretive tradition. For he cites Augustine almost more than anyone else. Chrysostom might be a close second. He marshals the words of these men, not in order to undermine Scripture’s authority, but to show that he’s working within the accepted interpretive scheme of Christ’s people. He’s simply making himself accountable to his brethren. As Muller says, “Calvin’s theology evidences a healthy respect for the patristic tradition.”[3]

While anticipating certain reactions to his own placement of councils, Calvin clarifies where he situates creeds within the order of churchly authority. Scripture always remains primary, but the creeds, he says, have a “provisional judgement,” which must be considered. He writes:

What then? You ask, will the councils have no determining authority? yes, indeed; for I am not arguing here either that all councils are to be condemned or the acts of all to be rescinded, and (as the saying goes) to be canceled at one stroke. But, you will say, you degrade everything, so that every man has the right to accept or reject what the councils decide. Not at all! But whenever a decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination which I have mentioned.[4]

Calvin expressly denies the notion that private interpretation should be given place to overturn the earliest conciliar decisions. At the same time, he does not regard every council to hold equal weight. And in this particular paragraph, he’s not so much referring to the ancient councils, like Nicaea I, Ephesus I, or Chalcedon. He’s referring to councils moving forward. In  other words, he’s not casting a blanket of skepticism over age-old orthodoxy, thereby making the individual exegete the final arbiter of biblical interpretive meaning. But he’s situating the councils themselves within the overall framework of biblical authority. Whether or not councils are true depends upon whether or not those same councils prove themselves to be bibline.

Calvin on Biblical Interpretation

Today, individualist assumptions are often brought to the text of Scripture. Now, by “individualist,” I do not intend an individualism concerning which a case might be made that a person should care for himself as a matter of principle.[5] By “individualism,” I mean the general assumption that the individual bible-reader, apart from corporate discourse or accountability, has sufficient ability to make interpretive decisions when it comes to the serious matters of orthodoxy. As has been observed in the previous section of this article, Calvin grants the possibility and reality of individual biblical interpretation. But he understands that a gathering or assembly of God-gifted men adds more weight than the individual is able to bear. The Westminster Assembly is of greater weight than Bob’s private interpretive musings. Calvin considers this a biblical dynamic:

Paul prescribes this method in distinguishing doctrines. For when he assigns the distinguishing of doctrines to the separate churches [cf. 1 Cor. 14:29], he shows what should be the order of procedure in more serious cases—namely, that the churches should take common cognizance among themselves.[6]

Therefore, in terms of biblical interpretation, the individual must put the whole before himself. This basically cashes out in a use of creeds and confessions in the biblical-interpretative effort when it comes to theological disputes over serious matters. Since such documents are products of the gathered churches, they are to be taken more seriously than a single person or their innovative takes just as two or three brethren within a local church hold more authority than a single person. Biblically, individuals, and even groups, who find themselves in disagreement, especially when it comes to “more serious cases,” must make appeal to the chorus of saints. Those who intentionally fail to do so would apparently be considered, by Calvin, haughty or unhinged.

This is not to say the whole church is bound to the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Second London Baptist Confession, as if either of those two documents carried the same exact weight of Scripture. But it is to say that those documents, as they sit within their respective theological traditions, supersede the individual’s biblical engagement and should also be utilized by churches, not only as a way to define their doctrine, but also as a means of remaining accountable to their brethren who went before them. The provisional doctrinal judgment of church history as its represented in creeds and confessions must have a voice today.

John Calvin & “The Great Tradition”

As a term, “the great tradition” doesn’t enjoy much precision. This is partly due to the nature of the term itself. It would be like trying to define the word “Scripture.” We might be able to say, “God’s Word.” But then, obvious questions of the nature of canon may arise. With the great tradition, we may be able to define it as such: inspired doctrine and practice as it has been transmitted from generation to generation, from the first century onward. But even this definition falls short, since it does not take into consideration the Old Testament backgrounds of the New Testament, interpretive method, etc. And, of course, the question arises, “Who decides what is biblical and what is not?”

As we look at Calvin, we quickly notice that he perceives the source of such a tradition to be Scripture alone, or sola Scriptura. There is no other source from which to derive articles of faith, or specially revealed religion. It does not come from the church. It does not come from the heathen. The Christian religion has its genus in special revelation as it has been recorded in the pages of the Bible.

What accounts for the transmission of that revelation to us? Issues arise, such as the lack of original Scriptural manuscripts, the early church that knew nothing of a fully-printed New Testament, and so on. Moreover, the philosophical assumptions of the Old and New Testaments, whilst largely lost in today’s society, continue to be assumed by Scripture since Scripture doesn’t change with the times. How, then, do we account for all these variables? I want to suggest we appeal to interpretive and doctrinal history in order to provide ourselves with accountability on both fronts. Calvin writes:

Thus, when Arius rose up, the Council of Nicaea was summoned. By its authority it both crushed the wicked efforts of that ungodly man, restoring peace to those churches which he had troubled, and asserted the eternal deity of Christ against his sacrilegious teaching. Then, when Eunomius and Macedonius stirred up new tumults, the Council of Constantinople provided a like remedy for their madness. At the Council of Ephesus, Nestorius’ impiety was overthrown. From the beginning, then, this was the ordinary method of maintaining unity in the church whenever Satan began any machinations.[7]

Consider modern-day aberrations of the doctrine of God. We know the Scriptures have all we need in order to know God. However, as individual persons, we need help. Otherwise, we are prone to twisting and contorting the text to fit our fancy. Thus, a “peer review” is needed in terms of how we interpret God’s Word. This is the accountability of the brethren, both within our respective local churches, but also throughout the whole history of Christianity. Calvin assumes the purity of the creeds and statements formed in the earliest centuries of the church’s history when he writes:

Thus those ancient Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedony, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.[8]

Biblical interpretation should take place within a corporate setting, that of the Christian church as it exists throughout history. The local church should be able to find itself within the interpretive and doctrinal tradition of creedal and confessional history, otherwise, they become a law unto themselves. And orthodox confessions ought to find continuity with the earliest creeds of the Christian faith, and they do. Of course, all the above must be fully and finally grounded in the text of Holy Scripture.

Conclusion

Scripture and tradition, unlike the Roman Catholic understanding, do not have to be two different sources of divine revelation or authoritative teaching. Scripture is the source, which means “tradition” is the general continuance of the church in the belief and practice of the Holy Scriptures. This doesn’t make Christians infallible. But it does recognize that there is a general continuity throughout the past two millennia of Christian belief and practice that is the result of special revelation; and, that this belief and practice has been accurately reflected in creeds and confessions. Calvin himself seems to have this same understanding.

As we deal with the current effort to overturn these age-old creedal imperatives among those who claim a “Reformed” heritage, we should remember that the Reformed themselves would not have given up so easily on the subject-matter of the historic creeds. Divine simplicity, trinitarian consubstantiality, and inseparable operations are creedal and confessional imperatives. And, though certain men seek to throw these long-held doctrines into question, we can be confident that the Reformers and the post-Reformation Puritans would unhesitatingly point them to the earliest ecumenical creeds and the confessions.[9]

Resources:

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 342.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1176.

[3] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II, 74.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, 1171.

[5] Cf. The Metaphysical Foundations of Love by Anthony T. Flood.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 1176.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, 1176–1177.

[8] Calvin, John. The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition. Loc. 21663.

[9] Cf. Herman Witsius’ Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed (2 volumes).

All That Is God Is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit

All That Is God Is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit

It takes time and humility to think through the far-reaching theological implications of trinity. When we confess, “God is triune,” what do we mean? An initial answer to that question might be, “We mean that God is one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” True enough. But in the pell-mell of current trinitarian debate, the implications of the simple, uncontroversial statement, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are stunted by a strange, yet understandable, adversity toward certain extra-biblical terms and the scholastic oven in which they were baked.

I say it is both strange and understandable. Strange because this is an age-old orthodoxy. The timeline of church history spans much further back than the last few decades and should cause us to regularly re-examine ourselves in light of Scripture and what Christians have believed Scripture has taught for the last 2,000 years. It shouldn’t be a surprise when we find we’ve made mistakes, and it shouldn’t be a problem to adjust course once we discover them. But the adversity is likewise understandable precisely because of this decades’ old ignorance we’ve all experienced to one extent or another. These terms and their meaning may not be new, but they are new to us. Yet, the last few years have enjoyed a constantly flowing stream of historical resourcement and doctrinal retrieval, not only from the high medieval period, but also from the patristics, the Reformation, and the post-Reformation.[1] Thus, a learning curve ought to be expected.

The following article is intended to be an irenic assistance in overcoming such a learning curve. I have decided to build off a statement most people reading this article will agree with, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I will seek to show that this statement is but a simple summary of the more technical formulation, that God is one essence subsisting in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God Is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I’m not going to jump through hoops in defense of this statement. It will suffice to note that its denial would imply that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not coequal. If all that is God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then one or more Persons may be said to be “less God” than another—a nonsensical suggestion, to be sure, but one that is substantively identical to Arianism.

If God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then all that can and must be said of the one God of Scripture must be likewise said of all three Persons. To quote the Athanasian Creed, “Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty. Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one almighty being.”[2] If God is power, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just are that power. If God is glory, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just are that same, single glory that God is. More technically, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith reads, “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided…” (2LBCF 2.3)[3] Ergo, God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What is lost in the current discussion is the fact that when we say “divine essence” we just mean “God.” So, when we say “the divine essence just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” or that it “subsists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we are saying “God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The purpose of the more technical language of “essence” and “person” is to denote the manner in which the one God (divine essence) exists or, more properly, subsists. So, when we say, “God exists in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we might more technically say, “the manner in which the one divine essence subsists is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Hence, the now-unfamiliar language of the Second London Confession, “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit…” A “subsistence” just being the manner in which the one God subsists.

Some Implications

We need to think through our theology, and part of thinking through our theology is a conscious effort to remain consistent. The simple statement, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is uncontroversial, but it’s also incongruous with several contemporary beliefs about God. For example, eternal relational authority submission (ERAS) teaches that Christ is in eternal submission to the Father. This means that the Father must have a superior authority to that of the Son’s. How does this fit with what we’ve already said above? Remember what we said above, “…all that can and must be said of the one God of Scripture must be likewise said of all three Persons.” But since ERAS opines a higher authority in the Father than is in the Son, all that may be said of God cannot be said of both Father and Son. We cannot say that the same divine authority, or power for that matter, may be commonly said of both Father and Son. For the Father has a higher and thus distinct authority from that of the Son.

Fundamentally, ERAS must reject the clause in the Athanasian Creed that says, “Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other.” Not only this, but it must also reject the very uncontroversial claim that “God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” What that one God is cannot be commonly asserted of all three Persons. Of course, ERAS proponents verbally affirm the unity of divine nature among Father, Son, and Spirit. Bruce Ware writes:

[ERAS] holds that God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons, such that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fullyand eternally the one and undivided divine nature; yet the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority, and the Holy Spirit likewise serves to advance the Father’s purposes fulfilled through the Son, under the authority of the Father and also of the Son.[4]

Ware confesses the unity of nature between Father and Son. At the same time, he alleges that the Father has a higher authority than that of the Son. But if the authority of the Father isn’t the authority of the Son, how could Ware possibly maintain the orthodox Trinitarian formula, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? All that may be said of God cannot be said of all three Persons. We could not say, “God’s authority just is the authority of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” since that would make God’s authority common to all three Persons. As it is, Ware has denied a common authority in the Godhead, and this devastates creedal and confessional orthodoxy. For Ware, all that is God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this renders his statement on the unity of the divine nature rather meaningless.

Ware wants to (rightly) say, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity.” But what about the authority of that deity? For Ware, authority is proper to the Persons rather than the divine nature making the three Persons three distinct willing agents. The question then becomes, “What is the divine nature?” If the divine nature isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then what is it? A fourth thing in the Godhead? If it is a fourth thing, then there is no trinity, but a “quadrinity.”

Anticipating a Question

If Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just is God, then what distinguishes them from one another? After all, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and neither Father nor Son are the Holy Spirit. The “several peculiar properties” are the only distinguishing factors between Father, Son, and Spirit, and these “peculiar properties” are the relations of origin described by the divine processions. Unbegottenness, begottenness, and spiration, respectively. 

These relations of origin are but the manner of subsistence of the one divine essence (the one God). So, when we say “Father,” we are not saying anything other than God or the divine essence, we are speaking of the principle manner in which the one divine essence subsists, that is, as unbegotten, eternal generator—the Father of the only begotten Son. Likewise, when we say “Son,” we are not saying anything other than the one divine essence (the one God), we are speaking of the second manner in which God subsists, that is, as begotten, eternally generated—the only begotten Son of the unbegotten Father. And so on.

Conclusion

Those who overtly or otherwise flirt with differentiating Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from the divine essence should reconsider their position in light of the implications, some of which have been discussed above. If God (the divine essence/nature) is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot each be said to be the one true God, and thus trinitarianism is utterly ruined. (Deut. 6:4) All that is God must be and is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit if orthodox trinitarianism is true.

Resources

[1] See the recent translation of Peter Van Mastrcht’s works, https://www.heritagebooks.org/Search.html#/Search.html?search=van+mastricht; and also Barnardinus De Moor’s extensive works, available here: https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/from_reformation_to_reformation_translations

[2] https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/athanasian-creed

[3] https://brokenwharfe.com/the-second-london-baptist-confession/

[4] Bruce Ware, et. al., One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, 237.

The Biblical Basis for Creeds

The Biblical Basis for Creeds

The use of creeds really do not need to be proven, given the self-evident need for Christians to confess both that they believe and what they believe. As soon as someone articulates what they believe in their own words, they articulate a creed. The term creed simply means “I believe.” It is, in short, a statement of belief. Every time a baptism occurs, a creed is expressed, either by way of question and answer, or by way of a plain statement. If someone were to say, “Creeds should not be used in the church,” I would simply respond, “do you believe that?” If they were to say, “yes I do,” I would want to simply point out that they are using a creed, i.e. a statement of belief. In order to reject creeds one must use creeds. And to use a creed in order to reject the use of creeds is not only self-refuting, it is hypocritical.

Scripture is clear on the use of creeds. It is the apostolic pattern as can be seen in several places. One of the clearest examples where a creed is employed is in Acts 8:37. Philip has already evangelized the Ethiopian eunuch by explaining to him the gospel from Isaiah 53. In v. 36, the eunuch asks, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” What is Philip’s response? Philip states the requirement for baptism, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch’s immediate reaction is creedal in nature, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” In Romans 10:9, Paul makes creedal statements nothing less than a requisite to salvation, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” In v. 10 he even says, “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” In 1 John 4:1-3 we read:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.

The term used for confess in this passage is ὁμολογέω (homologeo), and it means “to say the same thing as another,” and, “to declare openly and voluntarily.” Historically, churches have recited creeds together in a congregational setting. It was thought that such a creedal recital was a picture of Romans 10:9 put on weekly display within the assembly of God’s people. Paul says, “You must confess and believe.” The church’s response from that time on is, “Here is our confession, recited together in unity with one another.” A most proper response to be sure.

First John 4:2 places the term ὁμολογέω in the present tense, meaning this confession is not a one-time event that occurs at a person’s baptism, but is a continual act that characterizes the Christian church. Furthermore, the text assumes it is a public act—an act done within the context of community. John is, after all, dealing with how we know a person is a fellow Christian. How do we know a person is of God, that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit? “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that is confessing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” And in v. 7, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Thus, creedal proclamations, or confessions, is the first line of evidence indicating a person is a true Christian. Whether or not that person loves in accordance with the spirit of that confession is another line of evidence.

Creeds and confessions weren’t new to the New Testament. Perhaps one of the oldest creeds is the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” Jesus recapitulates this creed in Mark 12:29. In John 17:3, Jesus refers once more to it when He says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” And Paul mentions it as well in 1 Corinthians 8:4, “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.”

In 1 Kings 18:20-40, when the prophets of Baal raised their arrogant voices to heaven in opposition to the one true God, Elijah called down fire from Yahweh to consume a sacrifice. Despite the altar being soaked in water, the Lord faithfully answered Elijah the prophet, incinerated the sacrifice, and licked up all the water in the process. This, of course, was to the great humiliation of the Baal worshipers. But when the Lord manifested His glory by means of such a stunning display, the people fell down to worship. And how did they worship? They uttered forth a corporately confessed creed, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God (1 Kgs. 18:37)!”

Confessional Baptist Ecclesiology (Part II)

Confessional Baptist Ecclesiology (Part II)

All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted. (1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 11:26; Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:20-22) 

~ The Second London Baptist Confession (1677), 26.2 ~

Our 17th century Baptist forerunners continued to make the distinction between the invisible/visible,  and thus universal/local church, as becomes obvious upon a reading of 2LBC, 26.1-2. However, there is a careful departure from the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and even the Savoy Declaration. Whereas the Westminster Confession makes the visible church universal/catholic in 25.2, the 2LBC locates the visibility in the saints rather than in the institution. The framers of the 2LBC cautiously avoided conceiving of any kind of visible institution that would sit over and above the local church. A further point of departure is seen in the 2LBC’s omission of the WCF clause, “The visible church… consists… of their (believers’) children.” The children of professing parents should not be admitted into the visible or local church simply because of their birth to believing parents. Visible saints, those who outwardly profess Christ, are those who ought to make up the visible church, which is necessarily local.

What Makes a “Visible Saint”?

The 2LBC lists three characteristics of visible saints. First, they profess faith in the gospel. Second, there is a measure of obedience that justifies their profession before fellow saints. Third, they are orthodox in all matters integral to a true profession of faith. We should look at each of these elements as they come to us from the Scriptures.

First, visible saints are those who profess faith in the gospel. Some argue there is no such thing as an invisible saint, therefore, visible is an adjective without real significance. Saints are saints. However, saints are invisible in the sense that the certainty concerning their status before God belongs to God alone. Creatures may approximate such a certainty through the evidence of the fruits faith produces. But the question of whether or not those fruits are produced by a living faith or by existential wherewithal to appear a Christian before others is a question that often goes unanswered. Therefore, “visible saints” are those who have vindicated their profession of faith before men (Jas. 2:26; Tit. 1:16), men perceiving such fruits to the best of their Spirit-given ability in accordance with faith.

Those who profess the gospel are to be considered saints, as is clear from the Scriptures, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10:9).” And in 1 John 4:2-3 we read: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”

Second, obedience justifies the profession. James 2:26 says, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” This isn’t speaking of our justification before God, which is wholly through the blood and righteousness of our Lord. James has in mind our justification before the church, as v. 18 seems to make clear. Visible saints are not only those with a profession, but also those whose profession is justified before men with a measure of visible fruits “worthy of repentance (Lk. 3:8).” Those professing Christians who persist in unrepentant sin, ignoring all calls to repentance and brotherly admonishment, should be considered unbelievers since there is no fruit vindicating their claim to faith. They could have been true believers, but those saints to whom they’re accountable would have no sufficient reason to believe they were.

Third, visible saints hold to orthodox theology. This does not mean that all visible saints know all that is orthodox. Indeed, no creature knows all there is to know about God or things related to God. But, generally, visible saints confess orthodoxy. And since the orthodoxy of the creature is always subject to error, visible saints are receptive to correction by the grace of God. And furthermore, because creatures do not know everything, visible saints are willing to learn more. It’s not that the visible saint has perfect orthodoxy, it’s that the visible saint will, by the grace of God, believe what a Spirit-wrought faith believes.

Visible Saints, But Not Visible Church?

The framers of the 2LBC understood there to be a doctrine of the universal church. But they did not understand the universal church to be a visible institution which would require a universal government. Rather, for Baptists, the catholic or universal church is all God’s elect throughout time and place which makes it transcendent of time and place. Their only universal head is Christ, who is in heaven governing through His Holy Spirit. The only way in which this universal church appears in this world is the instance of the local assembly. This is why the last portion of 26.2 says, “of [visible saints] ought all particular congregations to be constituted.” Thus, the universal church is invisible, because it is transcendent of time and place, it exists in heaven and on earth, and it has stretched throughout the centuries. Christ is its only head. There is no single place a person could point at on a map or on a timeline and say, “That is the universal church.”

The local church, on the other hand, is the assembly of saints in time and place—saints who themselves belong to the larger project of the universal church (Matt. 16:18)—but who nevertheless are bound to associate on a smaller, temporal scale given their limitation to time and place. Christ is the only one who can “see,” and thus rule over, the universal church. As creatures, we are limited to time and place, heaven or earth, then or now, but not all the above at once. The issue of a “visible universal” church is the issue of confusing creature with Creator. By nature, creatures are unable to visualize a universal except through the particular. The creature is bound to experience the universal through the particular, hence the necessity of the local (or particular) church. 

The Confession uses the language of “particular congregations” to distinguish the institution of the local church in 26.2 from the universal in 26.1. Visible saints must necessarily become part of visible congregations which are necessarily particular, not universal. Benjamin Keach employs an analogy of a vineyard and its vines, “So in the universal Church are many particular congregations or communities of Christians, who are as so many choice Vines in God’s sight; it also abounds with plants, some fruitful, and some barren, as is signified by our Saviour.”[1] Commenting on 2 Corinthians 11:2, John Gill helpfully distinguishes between the universal church and its particular instances in “particular congregated churches” when he writes:

Christ stands in the relation of an husband to the church catholic and universal; to the whole general assembly and church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven; even to all the elect of God, that ever were, are, or shall be; and so he does to particular congregated churches, as he did to this church at Corinth, and so he does to every individual believer: which character he responds to, by loving them with a love prior to theirs, a love of complacency and delight, which is single, special, and peculiar, strong and affectionate, wonderful and inconceivable, constant, and what will last for ever; by sympathizing with them under all their afflictions, temptations, desertions, and exercises of every kind; by nourishing and cherishing them, which phrases are expressive of the spiritual food and clothing he provides for them, of that intimate communion he admits them to, and of that whole care he takes of them; by paying all their debts, supplying all their wants, supporting them with his right hand, protecting them against all their enemies, giving them grace here, and glory hereafter; and, last of all, by interesting them in his person, and all that he has, in all the blessings and promises of the covenant in his wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.[2]

The particular congregations are related in terms of time and locality. They are included within the universal church, as parts are included within the whole. Yet, the visible churches under heaven remain distinct (yet not separate) from the universal church since the universal church is broader than the local church, including also the saints in heaven.

Conclusion

The universal church is the whole—all the elect across time and place. This is imperceivable to the creature, who is confined to a particular time and particular place. Such a natural limitation requires the natural necessity of the local church. Ecclesiological systems that visualize the universal church fail to account for the inherent limitation of creatures which God has accommodated through the local church. Such local churches, being composed of visible saints, are the only instances that “visualize” the universal church. This is why we say that what goes on in the local church is a small glimpse into what the entire gathered universal church will look like at the end of time. In the following installment, I will discuss the relationship of the church to the kingdom as we look at 2LBC 26.3.

Resources

[1] Keach, Benjamin, Tropologia, (William Hill Collingridge, 1856), 687.

[2] Gill, John. John Gill’s Exposition on the Entire Bible-Book of 2nd Corinthians. Graceworks Multimedia. Kindle Edition. Loc. 3885.