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.


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]


[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.


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.


[1] See the recent translation of Peter Van Mastrcht’s works,; and also Barnardinus De Moor’s extensive works, available here:



[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.


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.


[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.

Confessional Baptist Ecclesiology (Part I)

Confessional Baptist Ecclesiology (Part I)

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

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

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

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

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

Christ Builds One Church

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

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

Jesus Possesses This Church

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

The Meaning of Ekklesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

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

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

Appealing to Confessional Doctrine

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

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

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

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

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

Theological Interpretation of Scripture

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

[3] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

[4] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.