Is the Kenotic Heresy a ‘Wondrous Story’?

Is the Kenotic Heresy a ‘Wondrous Story’?

It occurred to me last night that ‘I Will Sing the Wondrous Story’, by Francis Rowley (1886), is explicitly kenotic in its Christology. Particularly in the following phrase appearing in the first verse, “How He left His home in glory for the cross of Calvary…”

What is kenosis? kenosis refers to the “emptying” of the Son regarding His incarnation. As far as it goes, the word is biblical in its verbal form, but it must be understood properly. When theologians refer to “kenotic theory,” however, they typically refer to a variety of erroneous interpretations of Scripture to the effect of the Son’s deity being changed, forfeited, or suspended upon the occasion of His incarnation.

Kenotic theory plays off the Greek term κενόω appearing in Philippians 2:7, “but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Some translations render it more woodenly, “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (ESV) Kenoticists hold that the emptying here refers to either a conversion from or suspension of the Son’s divine nature at the point of His incarnation. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, have always understood the kenosis of Philippians 2 as an “emptying” through assumption rather than an emptying or change of the divine nature.

Those who hold to some form of the kenotic theory believe the Son ceased being God to one extent or another at the point of incarnation. Sometimes, this is framed in terms of a partial suspension of divine attributes. In other words, instead of affirming a hypostatic union, where two natures—divine and human—unite in the one Person of the Son, they affirm a hypostatic transformation, where the Person of the Son transforms from divinity into humanity. We ought to affirm hypostatic union rather than hypostatic transformation, for the following reasons—

Why Is the Kenotic Theory Wrong?

First, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is immutable. Malachi 3:6 says, “For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” If the divine Son converted or transformed from His divinity into His humanity, He would be mutable, changeable, and the doctrine of immutability would have to be denied. Instead, we want to say that the divine Person of the Son assumed another (human) nature. As Philippians 2 puts it, while “being in the form of God,” (v. 5) our Lord nevertheless took “the form of a bondservant.”

Second, this same God is omnipresent, which precludes locomotion, which is movement from one place to another. There is no place where God is not. The Psalmist rhetorically asks, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Ps. 139:7) That God the Son is omnipresent means that He did not have to move from heaven to earth to be on the earth. Rather, His Person was already “here,” being omnipresent. But that He would “condescend” to us, He assumed a nature relatable to our own, that is, He assumed a nature identical to our own, yet without sin. As Athanasius says in his notable work, On the Incarnation:

His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time–this is the wonder–as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father. (St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation (p. 19). Unknown. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added)

Third, the historical doctrine of the incarnation states that the Person of the Son, while remaining fully God, assumed the fullness of a human nature, “without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.” (2LBCF, 8.2) So, the Person of the Son is fully divine while also fully man. Again, Athanasius is helpful, “Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body.”


So, how did the Son “get to the cross”? Not by leaving His place in glory nor by converting His divine nature into humanity, but while remaining fully divine He assumed another nature capable of change, locomotion, suffering, etc., that is, He assumed a human nature. And in this, His divine nature changes not one bit. Christ is one Person in whom are united two natures—divine and human. This is indeed a mystery, but it must be confessed.


Philippians 2:5-11
Romans 9:5
John 10:18

Trading the Lord’s Day for… Christmas?

Trading the Lord’s Day for… Christmas?

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

Yet, here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point #2: “There’s Scriptural Freedom”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

It is never a good day to disagree with Dr. Sam Waldron. In spite of our disagreements, I have leagues-worth of respect for this man, and have no desire to enter into any unnecessary disputation, especially by bringing up an article from 2019 on the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary website. However, Waldron republished the article and, apparently, shared it in light of the current debate centered around natural theology. This debate revolves around two distinct subjects which must remain distinct however related they most certainly are. The preeminent issue is the doctrine of God. The second is natural theology. Waldron’s article largely addresses the latter. Though, I am concerned because it seems as if the contemporary rejection of natural theology has more to do with some of the persons by which it was taught, a la., Thomas Aquinas. Such a vein of rejection tends to rot other concepts and categories, and the doctrine of God seems to be the first victim of the disease. Eventually, the attributes of Scripture, the Person and natures of Christ, the work of Christ, and ecclesiology will likewise fall under the revisionist blade—perhaps in the next generation or two.

In this article, I am going to interact with Thomas extensively, but only because this is the target of Waldron’s article, and also because there is some undue identification of Thomas with the issues at hand. Thomas is not the face of classical theism. But contemporary discussion appears to be leveling criticism at classical theism for Thomas’ sake. And this is no bueno. As I’ve said before, if I had to choose between giving someone Thomas or giving someone Francis Turretin, I’d give them the latter. I also would not give the young Christian a copy of the Summa Theologiae. For this reason, it is unfortunate that critics of classical theism have come at this issue because of and through Thomas Aquinas. Because now the debate revolves around a historical person and not the facts of the matter. And as such, defense of the facts are misunderstood to be defense of the persons who teach them. It’s a mess.

It appears there are three main building blocks holding up Waldron’s article. They are:

  • Thomas’ alleged rejection of God’s self-evident existence
  • Thomas’ “imperfect” view of total depravity
  • Irreconcilable differences between Calvin and Aquinas

I want to say at the outset that Thomas is not my object of defense. But unfortunately, the person and the concepts he represents have become so tightly intertwined that it would be almost irresponsible to avoid using his name. He is not “he-who-shall-not-be-named” after all, though some may think so. And there are some misunderstandings of Thomas (understandably so) which lead Waldron to oppose Calvin and Thomas in places they perhaps should not be opposed. I want to make it clear that I am not trying to cop-out by accusing Waldron of “misunderstanding.” Nor am I trying to gaslight the man. Thomas is not 200, not 400, but 800 years removed from us, and his writings are translated out of Latin. So, there are cultural, linguistic, and philosophical chasms to overcome; not only between us and him, but even between him and Calvin—who lived almost 300 years after.

With that said, we should all approach the evidence circumspectly.

Thomas’ Alleged Rejection of God’s Self-Evident Existence

Waldron writes: 

I procured and then scoured the relevant sections of his Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica.  This reading caused considerable expansion of that lecture.  It actually—in fact—expanded it into two lectures. What it did not do, however, was significantly change my understanding of Thomas Aquinas “Classical Apologetics” at all.  I concluded that basically Van Til’s presentation of Thomas was right.

Here’s one of the first issues with the article, one that may account for some of the wrong assumptions made later on about what Thomas actually believed. It is very difficult to read “relevant” sections of Aquinas and come away with an accurate characterization of what he believed on any one particular topic. This is because Thomas was in the habit of making distinctions—something emphasized in the scholastic milieu he found himself in. So, what he affirms in one place may be distinguished into two or more senses or species in another, some of which he might affirm. It is, to that effect, not a reference work. While his 13th century students would have expected this feature of his work, we less so today. One such place Waldron runs into trouble relates to the notion of “self-evidence.” He writes:

Aquinas denies that the existence of God is self-evident in both his Summa Theologica and in his Summa Contra Gentiles and rejects the above arguments. The five proofs are built, then, upon the denial of any innate knowledge of God.

I have no idea what Waldron did and did not read, but as mentioned above Thomas makes distinctions. And “self-evidence,” for Thomas, must be distinguished into two senses. In his article, Waldron attempts to understand Thomas’ thought by looking at Thomas’ characterization of objections instead of exploring how Thomas answered those objections; and then, he defers to Gordon Clark—a spurious secondary source at best. I will not deal with Clark here because that will do nothing but complicate the discussion. We are trying to understand classical theism, and now we’re trying to understand Thomas’ articulation of it—it would be a shame if we now had to try and understand Gordon Clark’s understanding of Thomas!

Waldron apparently confuses the notion of self-evidence with innate knowledge, claiming that Thomas, in denying self-evidence, automatically(?) denies innate knowledge of God. But this largely takes for granted a definition of what self-evidence even is.

As mentioned, Thomas believed there are two ways in which a thing can be “self-evident.” “A thing,” he says, “can be self-evident in either of two ways: on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, At. 1).” But we have to remember what Thomas thought self-evidence was. By way of explanation, he says, “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition ‘God is’ can be mentally admitted: ‘The fool said in his heart, There is no God’ (Ps. 52:1). Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.”

When Thomas speaks of “self-evidence” he speaks of linguistic propositions, i.e. “God exists,” which may or may not be understood, but he does not subsume all knowledge under “propositional.” Much like one may reject an articulation of the formal laws of logic, they nevertheless “know” those laws through everyday employment of them. They know logic through implication, but not necessarily through inference (because they cannot be demonstrated). In that sense, the laws of logic are not “self-evident” to us, because we may not understand them propositionally. But that does not mean the laws of logic are not “self-evident” in themselves. Liberty is said to be “self-evident” in our Declaration of Independence. But it is not self-evident in that it cannot be rejected as a mental proposition (just look at our government!), but it is self-evident in and of itself.

For the medieval (and Reformed) scholastics, the knowledge situation wasn’t reduced to mental propositions. And this is why Thomas can say in the next two paragraphs, “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.” Interestingly, he also admits of the corruption of this knowledge when he says, “for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.” Thus, man has a confused knowledge of God implanted in them because though they see the contours, they apply those contours to idols instead of glorifying God as God (Rom. 1:21).” Concerning the exegesis of Romans 1, Waldron further notes:

Listen to his argument in Summa Theologica Question 2, Article 2: “The Apostle says: ‘The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ (Rm. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” Thomas takes (and the surrounding context of his assertion simply emphasizes this) Romans 1:20 to mean that the existence of God is not self-evident or implanted in man, but can be demonstrated.

We have to understand Thomas’ project. He’s writing what amounts to a systematic theology which means it proceeds discursively by nature. His proofs are largely in service of that effort. Thus, there is language in Thomas regarding the need to “demonstrate” God’s existence. But he did not think anyone and everyone needed to demonstrate God in order to know God. The simple, he thought, were justified in knowing Him through faith alone. And even the wicked, as we’ve seen, has an imperfect knowledge of God in and through the world—not because they performed an argument, but because they’ve inferred God’s existence through what has been made, both in himself (innately) and through the world (acquiescently). Francis Turretin and others would later term this “innate/acquired” knowledge.

In Romans 1:18-20, there are two types of knowledge mentioned, one innate (intuited) and another acquired through the works of God. Both Francis Turretin and Thomas Watson include both of these general “ways” of knowing God in their work. And many more names could be added to that duo (cf. Stephen Charnock). This is because they saw a twofold natural knowledge (theologia naturalis) of God in Romans 1:18-21 and elsewhere. The text reads:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Notice the phrase, “what may be known of God is manifest in them.” It is here we find biblical precedent for an innate knowledge. However, we should be careful not to confuse innate knowledge with the notion of immediate knowledge. Instead we should understand it as intuited knowledge. This knowledge is, of course, not justifiable to the outside world and cannot, in that sense, be “demonstrated” to others. For demonstration, the works of God must be considered. It is from these works derive acquired knowledge of God. Precedent for this acquired knowledge of God is found in the phrase, “being understood by the things that are made.” Another word for “understood” is “perceived.” And, the term “by” or “through” is an instrumental dative, signifying discursus—a process which, when made explicit through formal representation, we call demonstration or argument. Even so, demonstration is not how a person comes to this acquired knowledge absolutely. They infer it internally, sometimes nearly instantaneously—putting this or that together to form a conclusion. In some ways, it’s no slower than hearing the coffee timer beep only to conclude, “the coffee is done!” Demonstration is the art of taking that implicit process and making it explicit for the sake of justifying to others its truth.

Thomas’ “Imperfect” View of Total Depravity

There is much Dr. Waldron has to say about Thomas’ reception of Augustine. But I am not going to delve into that conversation because I think with the above clarification, one could go back and see there is a great deal of reception of Augustine in Thomas. Thomas did not reject every sense of implanted knowledge, but would have rejected the Platonic “pre-downloaded” propositions. Francis Turretin departs from this idea as well, when he goes so far as to call man a “tabulae rasae” from birth, without relative or propositional knowledge, though not without knowledge absolutely (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, 1.3).

Waldron further contends that Thomas rejects, or at least has an “imperfect” view, of total depravity when he writes:

Similarly, Aquinas also seems to have held confused and imperfect views of total depravity.  Sin, in fact, does not seem to occupy an important place in Thomas’s writings.  In Gilson’s index there is no entry for sin, depravity, the fall, or folly.  For a discussion of Thomas’s view of sin, one must consult his doctrine of free will and grace. It is not surprising, then, Thomas argues that natural light is sufficient for natural knowledge. Consequently, human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin.

Sin appears well over 1,000 times in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, and figures heavily into his theology. So, I am not certain why Waldron thinks otherwise. One possible reason could be the somewhat alien terminology employed by Thomas to discuss original sin and its effects. Chances are, most reading this have no clue what the term fomes means (and neither did I). Fomes literally renders to “fuel,” and is sometimes called “concupiscence (cf. Calvin).” It is the effect of original sin, and whilst grace works to mortify it, it will never be totally removed in this life.

The term concupiscence is a term shared by both Aquinas and John Calvin. Calvin himself says:

For which reason Aristotle truly taught, that in the appetite there is a pursuit and rejection corresponding in some degree to affirmation and negation in the intellect, (Aristot. Ethic. Lib. 6 sec. 2.) Moreover, it will be seen in another place, (Book 2 c. 2 see. 12-26,) how surely the intellect governs the will. Here we only wish to observe, that the soul does not possess any faculty which may not be duly referred to one or other of these members. And in this way we comprehend sense under intellect. Others distinguish thus: They say that sense inclines to pleasure in the same way as the intellect to good; that hence the appetite of sense becomes concupiscence and list, while the affection of the intellect becomes will (Institutes, 15.7).

The final part of the above quotation is Calvin’s basic articulation and agreement with the metaphysics underlying Thomas’ own view of fomes. For Thomas, the lower appetites of the soul, which included concupiscence as that faculty of pursuing desire, e.g. inclination of sensuality, conflicts with the higher powers, namely man’s intellect and will—enslaving both (we become brutes in our sin). This is more foundational to Thomas’ model of depravity, but in terms of depravity itself, Thomas is very clear:

The prudence of the flesh cannot be subject to the law of God as regards action; since it inclines to actions contrary to the Divine law: yet it is subject to the law of God, as regards passion; since it deserves to suffer punishment according to the law of Divine justice.

According to Thomas, a thing may be subjected to the eternal law in one of two ways: by way of knowledge and by way of action. But he says:

Both ways, however, are imperfect, and to a certain extent destroyed, in the wicked; because in them the natural inclination to virtue is corrupted by vicious habits, and, moreover, the natural knowledge of good is darkened by passions and habits of sin. But in the good both ways are found more perfect: because in them, besides the natural knowledge of good, there is the added knowledge of faith and wisdom; and again, besides the natural inclination to good, there is the added motive of grace and virtue (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 93, Art. 6).

This is a clear expression of depravity, and man’s desperate need for grace. Now, I do not want to be misunderstood. Thomas did not hold to forensic justification, but only mystical and sacramental justification wherein a person is ontologically made righteous or good through infused “charity.” Justification, for Thomas, was not a legal declaration, but a metaphysically “analytic” reality. Instead of God seeing us in and with His Son and on that basis declaring us to be righteous (synthetic justification), God, thought Thomas, judges us to actually be righteous in ourselves as the result of infused, sacramental grace (analytic justification). This is a massive dividing wall between us and him—and on this Dr. Waldron and I can heartily agree. Nevertheless, Thomas believes man is wicked and inclined to all sorts of evil, such that he’s comfortable using words like “destroyed” in terms of man’s ability to submit to God. Though there are nuances, one should not make the mistake of assuming Thomas was altogether discontinued from later Reformed thinkers on this issue.

Irreconcilable Differences Between Calvin and Aquinas

Of course there are vast differences between Calvin and Thomas. This is not in dispute. But Waldron locates those differences in odd places owing largely, I believe, to an anachronistic application of Van Tillianism (idealism) to their thought.

First, I would urge that we do not fall into the trap of making Calvin the measure of all Reformed orthodoxy. He is not. Second, what Calvin and Thomas actually disagree on are not necessarily what Waldron concerns himself with in his article. We have already seen there are some significant marks Waldron is missing which limits how effective he might be in contrasting these two thinkers. For example, he writes:

First, Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.  Thomas rejects the notion that the knowledge of the existence of God is naturally implanted. He argues, as we have seen, that strictly speaking the knowledge of God is not self-evident. He admits: “To know God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us …” Yet he says that this is “not to know absolutely that God exists, just as to know that someone is approaching is not to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter that is approaching.” He goes on in the next article to assert: “Hence, the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.”

“Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.” This is simply not true, as we’ve seen. Could there be varying degrees to which Calvin and Thomas view implanted or innate knowledge, respectively? Of course. But it cannot be said the former accepts implanted knowledge while the latter altogether rejects it. Waldron himself notes the area in question, but he then implies this isn’t enough. Why? Does not even Cornelius Van Til understand the relationship between his proximate and ultimate epistemological starting points this way? As soon as man has knowledge of himself, he has knowledge of God. As soon as man grips his own beatific purpose in a general way, which all rational men do throughout their whole lives, they know something of God—the outer contours, we might say. What are the contents of innate knowledge? If Thomas’ seminal and imperfect implanted knowledge is not enough, what would be? A full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity?

No matter the nuances between Calvin and Aquinas on this point, they both confessed models of an inner natural knowledge (innate natural theology according to Turretin). An unfortunate feature of Waldron’s survey is his total lack of interaction with Thomas’ biblical commentaries. And this was a defect in Jeffrey Johnson’s recent work as well. For example, in his commentary on Romans, Thomas says, “what can be known about God by men through reason, is manifest in them, i.e., is manifest to them from something in them, i.e., from an inner light (Commentary on Romans, C. 1 L. 6).” In his Commentary on John, he says, “He was the true light, which enlightens every man coming into this world (L. 5).” Thus, he did affirm the inward revelation of God. This is not in dispute (or shouldn’t be). The question is what Thomas believed that knowledge was. But I think that question equally applies to Calvin.

There is one last important point I would like to consider before closing. Waldron implies Thomas believed that “long or laborious” arguments were necessary in order to know God. This is a popular caricature. Waldron notes this while once more contrasting Thomas with Calvin. He quotes Calvin favorably:

We see that there is no need of any long or laborious argumentation to obtain and produce testimonies for illustrating and asserting the Divine Majesty; since, from the few which we have selected and cursorily mentioned, it appears that they are every where so evident and obvious, as easily to be distinguished by the eyes, and pointed out with the fingers  (Calvin, 1:5:9).

Allegedly opposed to what Calvin said, Thomas is then quoted as saying:

Now, among the inquiries that we must undertake concerning God in Himself, we must set down in the beginning that whereby His Existence is demonstrated, as the necessary foundation of the whole work. For, if we do not demonstrate that God exists, all consideration of divine things is necessarily suppressed (Aquinas, SCG, ch. 9, par. 5).

Here, Thomas is speaking of his Work, i.e. the Summas. There is another place where Thomas says, “The Apostle says: ‘The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ (Rom. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” 

It would be a mistake, however, to take Thomas as saying, “The only way God is clearly seen through what He has made is through demonstration.” In point of fact, he’s arguing just the reverse. If this knowledge were not demonstrable, it would not be perceivable, and if not perceivable, then it would not be “clearly seen,” as the text teaches. Rather than God being clearly perceived only after demonstration (as many take him to mean), he means it is because these things are clearly seen that accounts for why they can be demonstrated. This becomes apparent when Thomas says, “there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, Art. 2).” For Thomas, these things can be known apart from demonstration.


Again, I want to be very clear: This is not a personal slight toward Dr. Sam Waldron. It is not intended to show any sort of disrespect. My desire here is for truth to prevail. I fear that, in a zeal to escape a personality and even that person’s methodology, good and true things, essential things even, are being rejected, e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity with EFS, immutability, and simplicity. These are staggeringly important doctrines without which the Christian faith falls flat. For this reason, I do hope articles like this one serve to clarify rather than stir the pot.

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 4-6)

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 4-6)

With respect to the previous post, I’d say the main takeaway was this: Johnson implicated a want in God. A less archaic way of saying the same: God, thinks Johnson, is in need of motion in order to create the world. The belief in this divine need diminishes in no wise throughout the next three chapters, as we will see.

Before I get started, I would like to address those who have begun their criticisms by saying, “You haven’t read the whole book yet!” I answer—You haven’t read my whole review yet. So, what are you doing criticizing my work? My conscience is clear given where I’ve been with similar subject-matter in the past, and also coming from a Van Tillian background. Please, assess my review on its merits as I am attempting to do with Dr. Johnson’s book. As it is, there is nothing new under the sun, and this most certainly is not an original work. If you’ve read Van Til, Oliphint, and Frame you’ve already read Johnson’s book—a claim perhaps to be proven another day.

The following review will critically evaluate the next three chapters, chs. 4-6. I believe you will find that my criticisms of the first three chapters will hold by the time our evaluation of chs. 4-6 is complete. With that said, let’s get started— 

The (Relevance?) of Pseudo-Dionysius’ Natural Theology

Johnson’s main point in writing this chapter is not to criticize natural theology or Thomas, but to present a survey of Dionysius’ natural theology. For this reason, I do not have many direct critiques of this chapter. But, in reading the following chapters, one gets the feeling Johnson was setting his readership up to accept a massive genetic fallacy. A genetic fallacy occurs when an argument (or something of the like) is rejected purely because of its source. It would be like someone denying 2+2=4 simply because Hitler once verbalized it in a speech. The validity of said equation does not rest upon Hitler. It is true regardless of Hitler’s character. In following chapters, though it be assumed, it doesn’t seem Johnson actually proves causal relation between Dionysius’ philosophical assumptions and terminology to that of Thomas’. I’m not saying there isn’t one, I just do not think Johnson succeeds in making that connection.

Assuming Johnson’s biographical, historical-philosophical and theological information is accurate, this is a somewhat useful chapter in understanding Dionysius’ thought. Yet, seeing as how this book is not purposed to evaluate and critique Dionysius, one has to wonder why it is in here, especially given the conjectural and spurious connections between Dionysius and Thomas in following chapters.

Because this chapter is more descriptive and not opinionated, I only have a single qualm. Johnson writes:

Dionysius, in his attempt to reconcile Neoplatonism with Christianity, claimed that he did not want to add or take away anything from the Scriptures. Concerning the Scriptures, he asserted, “We strive to preserve its treasure in ourselves without addition, diminution, or distortion” (DN. 2.3). Nevertheless, he completely undermined the objectivity and sufficiency of Scripture by reducing divine revelation to an analogical language that is essentially and completely symbolic: [The Scriptures] enwrapped spiritual truths in terms drawn from the world of sense, and super-essential truths in terms drawn from Being, clothing with shapes and forms things which are shapeless and formless, and by a variety of separable symbols, fashioning manifold attributes of the imageless and supernatural Simplicity” (DN. 1.4).

For those just tuning in, there are basically three species of language or predication: univocal, equivocal, and analogical. Univocal language is predication corresponding more directly to its subject. To that end, it comprehends (to one extent or another) that of which it speaks, i.e. “the circle is round.” The predication is proper to the subject, we might say. Equivocal language refers to a single predicate with diverse subjects, e.g. the trunk of an elephant vs. the trunk of a car. And analogical language predicates true things about the subject analogically, e.g. candle light is like sunlight (but the two are obviously not the same). Analogy communicates likeness.

Johnson has taken issue with symbolic language. Oddly enough, however, words themselves are symbolic notwithstanding. Francis Turretin writes, “words are the types (typoi) of things (Institutes, vol. 1, 1, I.).” Contrarily, Johnson implies there is some more direct mode of communication, entirely evasive of symbology or analogy. To jump ahead, he says of Thomas’ view, “Because there is no probation or gradation between the finite and the infinite, our communication of God… is at best metaphorical, if not altogether mystical (FNT. 177).” It is unclear how Johnson makes a distinction between analogical language on the one hand and metaphorical language on the other. He affirms Scripture uses analogical predication through and through, but he never seems to define its meaning in such a way as to distinguish it from metaphor or “mystical” language.

Johnson’s issue with Aquinas seems to be his (Aquinas’) reluctance to allege a comprehension of the infinite divine essence by finite, creaturely terminology. But this impossibility of finite comprehension of the infinite must be the case since that which is infinite cannot be piecemealed, quantified, or otherwise comprehended by finite creatures. A maxim popularized during the Reformation was, “finitum non capax infiniti,” the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. It was relevant especially to the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation. But, for our purposes here, we must affirm the same with regard to our knowledge of the divine essence. Thomas was right. We cannot know God in Himself because God in Himself is infinite. If we finite creatures could “get our arms around Him,” so to speak, God would not be infinite, and so God would not be God. As Turretin says, “finite and created [theology]… is made to travelers… (Institutes, vol. 1, 2, VI).” This is a reference to the Reformed scholastic division in theology: theology of the pilgrim (theologia viatorum), theology of beatitude (theologia beatorum), and theology of union (incarnate theology of Christ)(theologia unionis).

While much of Dionysius is brought forth here, and while I have no doubt Thomas drank deeply from him, it never becomes quite clear what the necessary link is between the two. Johnson appears as if he wants to implicate Thomas in Dionysius’ errors. But he never succeeds in showing where Thomas adopted Dionysis’ errors in the first place.

The Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas

In ch. 5, there are some odd, one-off remarks made which makes me question some of Johnson’s presuppositions. I myself always tell members of our church, “The Christian ought always be in search of the truth.” My assumption, of course, is that all truth is God’s truth. He is the one who, after all, created the cosmos. Yet, Johnson appears uneasy at the prospect of appropriating all truth into the Christian faith, “And like Boethius, who sought to reconcile Aristotle, Plato, and Christ, Alber [the Great] believed that wherever truth is found, either in Aristotle or in Plato, it ought to be assimilated into Christianity (FNT, 96).” Assuming Johnson sees this as controversial, I could just ask, “Why?” 

If God is responsible for all truth, would not all truth tell us more about God? The Second London Baptist Confession (1677), says, “the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God (1.1).” Would it, thus, not follow that all truth in creation communicates something of God, and thus finds some place in our theology?

In this chapter, aside from likening the via negativa (apophaticism) to bad directions to one’s house, there are other issues. Continuing his assault on analogical language, which he calls metaphorical (for what explanation, we know not), he says, “our knowledge of God at best is only a symbolic representation of God (FNT, 106).” If language is just theology made explicit, we might follow Turretin at this juncture and respond, “All propositional knowledge and language is significant of that which it signifies. We have an ectypal not an archetypal theology. And thus, we know God in creature-mode.

On the very next page, Johnson begins comparing the Thomistic and Reformed position with Plato’s cave. “Our relationship with God,” he laments, “is based on knowledge, and this, based on a creative picture. It doesn’t matter if God can speak to us or not; we cannot rise above the cave that enslaves us (FNT, 107).” If by “creative picture” Johnson means a creaturely medium, then what Johnson bemoans as an intellectual handicap is prima facie true! The finite cannot comprehend the infinite, and for this reason revelation must be creaturely. I wonder if Johnson would recognize a distinction between God Himself and His revelation. If there is a distinction between the two, it would follow that revelation just is a creative picture of God, because it is creature rather than Creator. Yet, it nevertheless reveals the Creator accurately and sufficiently, albeit not in the way Johnson has hoped for. More on this when we get to ch. 9.

The Fatal Flaw

As with ch. 3, ch. 6 reveals a staggeringly unorthodox conception of the doctrine of God. This seems, once more, to result from Johnson’s bent against anything having to do with the operation of human reason in discerning the existence of God “by the things that are made (Rom. 1:20).” He asks, “Is philosophy—without the aid of revelation—even capable of leading rational people to the same God of natural and supernatural revelation (FNT, 114)?” The question is deficient. First, natural revelation is the object of natural knowledge/theology (what Johnson rightly places within philosophy). Second, that anyone believes natural theology is mutually exclusive to revelation is a canard I’ve already sought to reveal in my previous piece. The object of natural theology, even for Aquinas, are the things through which God revealed Himself, i.e. His works. Against the heretical Socinians, Turretin writes:

The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively)(Institutes, vol. 1, 1. 3. IV).

Later, Turretin asks, “Can the existence of God be irrefutably demonstrated against atheists? We affirm (Institutes, vol. 1, 3. 1. IV).” Under article VII of the same topic and question, he says, “The newness of the world with the commencement of motion and of time proves the necessary existence of God. For if the world began, it must necessarily have received its beginning from someone.” He places motion and time side-by-side, because as time is merely a measurement of change, it follows that that which moves is bound or measured by time, i.e. neither infinite nor eternal. After issuing proofs and discussing atheism, Turretin moves right into the locus of divine unity, following the same methodical order of Aquinas (who goes from the existence of God to God’s simplicity).

In identifying what Johnson calls “the fatal flaw,” he writes, “the fatal flaw of the philosophical theology of Thomas Aquinas is the foundation of his natural theology—divine immobility, the idea that God cannot move Himself (FNT, 114).” (And this is a bad thing!?) Johnson qualifies this statement with a footnote, saying, “To be more precise, I would say the fatal flaw lies in Aquinas’s unbiblical commitment that all knowledge begins and is confined to sense experience.” This warrants a bit of a rabbit trail before returning to immobility.

While Thomas believed all natural knowledge begins in the senses, he did not hold that it was “confined” to the senses. For Thomas, there are lower and higher appetites, sensitive and intellectual. Animals, for example, only have a sensitive soul. So, for animals, it would be right to say that their knowledge is confined to their senses. But this is not so with mankind. While knowledge begins in the senses, it does not end in the senses. “Now it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense (I, Q. 1, Art. 9).” Thus, the higher considerations of the intellect, while starting with the sensitive powers, certainly does not end in the sensitive powers. We often refer to this as inference. We infer higher truths through sensible objects. Modern empiricists, however, reduce man to beast in assuming all knowledge is confined to the sensitive appetite.

Now, because Johnson wants an immediate knowledge/revelation in man—un-infered or intuited through any kind of process or movement of the intellect—and because Johnson assumes a basic separation between the phenomena and the noumena, i.e. the sensible world cannot give us any sure knowledge of the noumena or God, he says, “No matter how hard Aquinas tried, he could not change the fact that divine immobility is incompatible with the God of the Bible (FNT, 115).” Immobility is a conclusion from the effect of God. But any discursion over God’s works, it is presupposed, cannot land man upon a true knowledge of God. He further says, “Aristotle presumed that what was true concerning motion in the observable realm would be true concerning motion (if it existed) in the unobservable realm (FNT, 116; emphasis added).”

Further elaboration on what he sees to be errors in Thomas’ reasoning, especially with respect to his five ways, Johnson writes, “But who is to say both non-motion and motion couldn’t exist in the Trinity? Seeing that God is triune, could not his essence be without cause, while motion eternally exists within the relationship of the three persons as they eternally communicate their love toward one another (FNT, 116)?” And, “Aristotle assumed that motion would apply the same to an autonomous being as it applies to contingent beings; Aquinas made this same assumption (FNT, 117).”

Johnson assumes Aristotle and Aquinas want to apply motion to God. But this is completely backwards. Whereas motion is creature, Thomas thought, it must be removed rather than applied to God. Thomas was remoting or negating motion—which he held to be nothing less than the actualization of a potential—from the divine essence. Motion, even if self-induced, would require God to be caused by something that is not God. There are basically three options:

  1. God is wholly identified with His movement, in which case there would be no place given for immutability.
  2. A part of God moves God, in which case God is composed and caused to be by said parts.
  3. God is both unmoved and moves Himself at the same time and in the same relationship, a violation of the law of contradiction, the commitment to which would render all predication unintelligible.

In the final analysis, neither of these three options are available to the Bible-believing (Mal. 3:6), orthodox Christian. And this means we must remote or remove motion from the divine essence altogether. 

Furthermore, Turretin believed man was able to draw this conclusion through nature, as was above alluded. Nature reveals a God that is not mobile, but is the cause of all that is mobile. Johnson has committed himself to the same principle error of the process theologians. Rather than remoting creatureliness from God, Johnson wants to understand the essential Godhead in creaturely terms. Rather than understanding creaturely terms to be univocally inapplicable to the divine essence, Johnson falls headlong into affirming a creaturely attribute as proper to the divine essence, i.e. motion. This becomes clear in ch. 8, when he writes, “The Trinity is the only being (because he is both one and many) who can move himself ad intra… For something to be self-mobile, it has to be unmovable and movable at the same time (FNT, 161).”

Among other odd claims in the chapter, Johnson adds, “Natural theology must conclude that it is dependent on divine revelation to go any further than the knowledge of the existence of God (FNT, 118).” This statement comes within the context of Johnson denying accurate, logical inference from God’s effects to God. Just before it, he says, “Just because all contingent things in motion require an external cause does not mean that motion in God, if motion exists in God, requires an external cause.” And remember, he has already said, on p. 116, “Aristotle presumed that what was true concerning motion in the observable realm would be true concerning motion… in the unobservable realm.” Johnson thinks this is a faulty assumption. But if it is a faulty assumption, how could Scripture be any different? If Scripture falls within the “observable realm,” and if Scripture is creature, not Creator, then how could it map the unobservable realm? Kantian idealism has its consequences, and this is one of them. To arbitrarily except Scripture—which is creature—from this problem is to engage in special pleading.

Quoting from Herman Bavinck, he goes on to write, “We have no right… to apply the law of causality to such a first cause, and that we therefore cannot say anything specific about it (FNT, 117).” And he himself says immediately after, “The cosmological argument collapses because it jumps from physics to metaphysics, from science to philosophy, without having any epistemological warrant for such a leap.” There are a few important things to note at this point— 

  1. If there is no epistemic warrant to conclude divine things from creaturely things, metaphysical things from physical things, etc., then how can Scripture, which is ontologically creature, communicate anything about divine things?
  2. The law of causality is but an extrapolation of the law of noncontradiction. Every effect must have a cause (contra John Stewart Mill who thought every thing must have a cause). That every effect needs a cause is an analytical statement because causality inheres in the very meaning of the term effect

We must deny that God is an effect in every sense, because an effect just is that which has a cause. It would be contradictory to say of God, who is not an effect, that He is both uncaused and caused, or unmoved and moved. If this does not apply to our predication of God, it follows the laws of logic do not apply to our predication of God. And thus it would follow predication, biblical or otherwise, is entirely unintelligible. The way by which Johnson tries to reduce Aquinas’ arguments to absurdity actually results in reducing his own position to absurdity as well. For if we are without epistemic warrant to infer of heaven through what is made on earth, it follows that the Scriptures themselves, being creaturely, are altogether ineffectual.

Johnson goes on to ask several questions designed to illustrate alleged incoherence in the notion of an unmoved mover. He begins by saying, “So Aquinas, who sought to integrate the unmoved mover of Aristotle with the God of the Bible, had to explain how the unmoved mover can be the moving cause of the universe (FNT, 121).” Johnson is on a warpath against divine immutability, a la., immobility, and by extension, divine simplicity. He asks questions like, “How can the unmoved mover create anything new?” And, “If God is identical to his acts, how is God not one with his act of creating anything new?” Astounding is Johnson’s apparent assumption that these objections haven’t been discussed for the past 2,500 years. And he hardly interacts with the numberless explanations given, by manifold historical authors, on the point of immutability/immobility and its relation to creatio ex nihilo.

In terms of historical orthodoxy on the point of immobility, Benedict Pictet writes:

From the simplicity of God follows his immutability, which denotes nothing else than such a state of the divine essence and attributes, as is not subject to any variability. We argue this immutability… since whatever possesses all perfection, such is incapable of mutation (Post-Reformed Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 312).

Richard Muller on the same says:

This assertion of immutability is to be understood absolutely denying every sort of mutation, including corruption, alteration, changes in knowing and willing, changes in and of attributes, and changes of place involving “local motion (PRRD, vol. 2, 313).”

Thomas Edwards states:

And so in all the Changes that happen in the World, in the several Ages of it, the case is the same. It is the permanent, and unchangeable Will of God, that he will act and influence on his Creatures, especially Men, as there is occasion. It is his immutable Decree that he will produce such and such alterations in the World, and at such a time. God himselfe [sic] is Immovable and Unchangable though he moveth and changeth all things. We move, not God. We are changed, not He (PRRD, vol. 2, 317).

Johnson’s burden, in this chapter and in others, was to show that mobility was not mutability. He never meets this burden, and as a result, onlookers are completely justified in implicating Johnson in the denial of classical and confessional immutability. And such a denial is contrary to orthodox Christianity, as Turretin writes, “With the orthodox, we maintain that every kind of immutability is to be ascribed to him both as to nature as to will (Intitutes, vol. 1, 3. 11. II).” Quoting Augustine, Turretin goes on, “Whatsoever is changed from the better for the worse, and from the worse for the better, is not God, because perfect virtue can neither change for the better, nor true eternity for the worse.” Also, Turretin denies Johnson’s assumption, that the act of creation requires change or motion in God, “Creation did not produce a change in God, but in creatures… It is one thing to change the will; another to will the change of anything. God can will the change of various things… without prejudice to the immutability of his will because because even from eternity he had decreed such a change.”

In short, if God moves, He is not God. Even if it is so-called “self-motion,” movement assumes a final cause, or that end toward which the object moves. This, even on self-movement, introduces contingency within the Godhead.


The rest of the chapter attempts to deconstruct Thomas’ proofs upon the faulty assumptions Johnson makes which we’ve already reviewed. There is much I could say in defense of Thomas, but in this review, I am not so much concerned to defend a man as I am to examine the integrity of Johnson’s views on natural theology in se and theology proper, both views of which I believe to be soul- and church-destroying.

In this part of the review, we’ve seen clearly Johnson’s affirmation of motion in God. And this, interestingly enough, is seemingly drawn from his rejection of the proofs. Johnson has rejected natural theology, or the first principles. Because of this, he’s landed squarely in a denial of divine immobility, and has rejected the unmoved mover, which has introduced contingency within the divine essence.

Again, Jeff, I pray you walk backwards.

When God Institutes Slavery

When God Institutes Slavery

What about slavery in the Bible?

We should begin by making a distinction between slavery per se and slavery per accidens. Slavery per se is slavery in itself, which is not sinful (because positively instituted by God, who cannot sin). Slavery per accidens is slavery as it appears in any given society, which may or may not be sinful depending on whether or not individual liberties are observed. There are a few observations we need to make concerning biblical slavery, or slavery per se

First, we need to observe that slavery was sanctioned and commanded for national Israel alone. This is not natural law which applies to all men everywhere. This is a positive law instituted for a particular people, place, and time. No other nation has been positively commanded by God to engage in the institution of slavery.

Second, salvery was uniformly regulated by Scripture. It was not left to the dictates of opinion, the fulfillment of greed, etc. Moreover, the slaves in Israel fell under all the same laws as their masters. The laws were no tighter, nor were they different in terms of more or less restriction. This, as we will see, was not the case in the Antebellum south.

Third, there were generally three categories of slaves in Israel: domestic slaves, slaves purchased from other nations, and slaves of plunder. Domestic slaves were never slaves indefinitely. “If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you (Deut. 15:12).” Slave masters were urged to remember their own historical slavehood in Egypt, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you (Deut. 15:15).” The essence of this reminder is, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 7:12).”

There were also slaves purchased from sojourners and other nations, and slaves taken in plunder which the Israelites were permitted to keep as permanent slaves. But, again, this was only instituted for Israel; and it only applied to the individual and not their posterity indefinitely, unless a consensual transaction took place. They, though slaves, had the protection of Israel’s laws and were expected to assimilate into Israelite society so as to be fellow Jews. Moreover, Israel, unlike other, future periods when slavery arose throughout the world, was the only place in which a person could be truly free (to worship the true God).

We, moreover, have to remember that this Israelite slavery was instituted through the Old Covenant, which the New Covenant tells us has been done away with (Heb. 8:13). And the purpose, I propose, for Old Covenant slavery was typological on several levels. It served to foreshadow the slavehood of the nations to Christ under the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20). Paul says, “For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave (1 Cor. 7:22).” If Israel itself was a Christ-type, then it would make sense for God to positively sanction slavery, since Christ Himself would be the other and greater Slave Master. But, as we see in the New Testament, to be a slave of Christ is actually to be a free man, liberated from sin and the world—free, that is, to obey God according to the dictates of conscience.

We can therefore say with biblical confidence that any slavery per accidens that obscures the liberty of a man to live unto or worship God according to the dictates of his conscience is unbiblical slavery.

The 4-D Homily & Why Leaving It Behind Has Given Us Tim Challies’ Thoughtless Article on Government

The 4-D Homily & Why Leaving It Behind Has Given Us Tim Challies’ Thoughtless Article on Government

I know, this is an odd situation to patent a novel term for a really old style of homiletics or method of preaching. When asked, I’ve been telling people I use an “adapted form of Peter van Mastricht’s preaching outline,” for nearly a year now.

For those of you who do not know, Van Mastricht was a Dutch, post-Reformed scholastic Puritan. I do not utilize a variation of his method simply because it comes from him. In fact, it is implicitly found in many, if not most, of the Puritans. Van Mastricht just happened to be most express about it, actually systematizing it as a methodology (Cf. vol. 1 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology). This is part of the reason Richard Muller, the church historian, refers to Van Mastricht as the height of Reformed orthodoxy in vol. 1 of his Post-Reformed Reformed Orthodoxy.

I am not a creature of innovation and tend to think the old ways are better (sometimes to a fault). But if updating nomenclature helps people understand where I’m at without changing the substance of the thing its designed to represent, I’m all for it. Instead of saying, “I use Van Mastricht’s preaching method,” I will just refer to my method as “4-D homiletics,” or “4-D theology.”

What Is 4-D Homiletics?

First, homiletics refers to the art and science of preaching. Second, 4-D refers to the four dimensions or aspects of theology which should be present in a sermon, but should also determine the form of doctrinal treatises and systematic expositions of the various loci in Christian theology. These four “dimensions” are the exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical.

In the exegetical part, the text is exposed or made plain as to its meaning or sense. In the doctrinal part, doctrine is concluded from the text of Scripture. In the elenctic part, objections to the doctrine are answered, usually through way of affirmations, distinctions, and denials. And in the practical part, application from all the above is made.

In my case, I usually have about three topics or points in each sermon, and then those points (which are derived from the text) have their own exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical parts.

However, the Puritans would often proceed through a sermon without three topics or points, and the entirety of the sermon or doctrinal treatise would simply be a survey of the text through each of those four principle parts of theology.

Tim Challies & Government

Throughout the coronavirus “crisis” many have sought to establish a near-absolute obedience of the Christian to the government based on texts like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13. In a recent article, Tim Challies says:

If we wish to submit to God, we must submit to the authorities he has established. Said otherwise, obedience to God manifests itself in obedience to government.

Christians may dispute the exact parameters of governmental authority, but surely we can at least agree that matters of public health fall under the jurisdiction of the state.

He also says in a later part of the article:

Of course there are times when obedience to a higher authority means we must disobey a lower authority. “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). But we may do this only when that lesser authority is overstepping its bounds or when obeying government would be disobeying God. For every other occasion, God gives us a sober warning: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” When government acts within its mandate, we must obey. When we fail to obey, we risk judgment—God’s own judgment as it is carried out by the state. But, conversely, when we obey, we gain joy—the joy that always comes with obedience.

Challies makes a few points here. First, we must obey government because God says so (I affirm). Second, matters of public health fall within the purview of government authority (I distinguish). Third, Christians can disobey government but only when the government commands Christians to do that which is sinful (I affirm).

In his first point, he’s not saying anything Christians actually disagree with. Every Christian believes we ought to obey government because God has commanded us to do so. The question has nothing to do with whether or not we should obey government, the question, at least for Americans, is what is our government? How is it defined?

In his second point, he suggests public health falls within the realm of governmental authority. This is a sweeping claim in need of further definition. If by public health Challies means the protection of the people’s life, liberty, and their right to pursue happiness (the language of our founding document), then sure. The government, according to Romans 13, wields a sword precisely to this end, the the image of God would be free or at liberty to live lives, especially lives unto God. But if by public health he means protection from every viral threat under the sun, then absolutely not. The American arrangement is not designed for such a nanny-like state authority. Otherwise, the government could legislate literally anything in the name of public health and safety.

In his third point, he states another obvious truth, that Christians are not to disobey government unless government enacts laws contrary to the law of God. Again, no Christian, that I’m aware of, disagrees with this in theory. The question is, How is it put into practice? And, more specifically, How is it put into practice in the U. S.?

Why 4-D Homilies & Theology Matter

You might be wondering, “What’s the relationship between preaching and what Challies has written?”

I thought you’d never ask!

Challies, at a fundamental level, is failing to not only divide the Word of God rightly, but he’s also failing to apply the Word of God, through the practical use of the Scripture he tries to interact with, to the lives of Western Christians. He has failed to exegete the text, he has failed to draw proper doctrinal conclusions from the text, he has failed to answer any kind of objections in any meaningful sense, and he’s most certainly and utterly failed to apply Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to our present situation, instead assuming without argument a particular, anachronistic application which may have applied to 17th century England, but does not apply to us in the here and now.

4-D preaching and 4-D theologizing presses the theologian to argue from the Scriptures, defend their claims, and then apply it all to life that the Christian may live more abundantly unto God in Christ. Unfortunately, Challies, I believe, does just the opposite.

He quotes some Scripture, assumes his exegesis instead of showing his work, and then makes a faulty application.

If he were careful, he would have noted that current elected officials (in the U. S. & Canada) are commanding Christians to disobey what God has commanded, that is, we are no longer “allowed” to assemble together. This is a clear contradiction to Hebrews 10:24, 25; 4:9, and Exodus 20; Deut. 5 with regard to the Sabbath commandments. But he doesn’t even address this. He goes on apparently assuming the government hasn’t commanded Christians to do anything sinful in this particular instance.

Moreover, if, in the case of the U. S., the Constitution is the principle of power for all elected officials, then obedience of U. S. citizens is ultimately determined by that document. In that document, we have the 1st amendment and also the 10th amendment, both of which guarantee the free exercise of religion and the terminus of the powers not given to the Congress in the states or the people. This means obedience to Romans 13, within the American context, could actually look like public dissent as a result of infringements upon the Constitution.

Challies considers none of these factors in his article. Why? Because the four-fold way or the four dimensions of theology are not carefully thought out. He’s not exegeting the text—he’s just quoting the text and assuming a meaning without argument. He’s also not drawing out a clear doctrine of government from the text (because he never exegeted the text in the first place). He’s not interacting with objections, but merely assuming the truth of his article. And he’s not applying the exegeted text to the reader where the reader is at (which is what the art of application is all about).

We need to bring back this comprehensive way of both doing theology and preaching theology, otherwise, several stones will be left un-turned, doctrinal knowledge will degrade even further than it has, the church will suffer, and people will actually end up disobeying God rather than obeying God, which is the whole business of the Christian in the first place.